US to return war booty church bells to Philippines

A view of the Roman Catholic church in the coastal Philippine town of Balangiga, the belfry of which the town built in 1998 in the hope that the US would return three bells it says were stolen during the 1899-1902 Philippine-American War. (Reuters/Nathan Layne/File Photo)
Updated 12 August 2018
0

US to return war booty church bells to Philippines

  • The US will return church bells to the Philippines troops seized in a bloody campaign more than a century ago
  • Duterte and previous Philippine governments had urged Washington to return the bells

MANILA: The United States will return to the Philippines church bells seized by American forces in a bloody campaign more than a century ago, its embassy said on Sunday, following a demand by President Rodrigo Duterte.
American forces took three bells from the Catholic church of Balangiga town on the eastern island of Samar in 1901 as war booty in what historians said was a particularly brutal military operation in the new US colony.
Duterte and previous Philippine governments had urged Washington to return the bells, with the president often raising the issue in his anti-American tirades as he builds closer ties with China and Russia.
The US had initially given a non-committal response to Duterte’s demands but on Sunday said it would return the bells.
“The Secretary of Defense has notified Congress that the Department (of Defense) intends to return the Bells of Balangiga to the Philippines,” said Molly Koscina, spokeswoman for the US embassy in Manila.
“We’ve received assurances that the Bells will be returned to the Catholic Church and treated with the respect and honor they deserve,” she added, saying there was no date scheduled for the move.
Duterte’s spokesman welcomed the announcement.
Two of the bells are installed at a memorial for US war dead in the state of Wyoming, while the third is with US forces in South Korea.
Some US politicians oppose the dismantling of the memorial, and the issue had sparked an emotional response from the descendants of American soldiers who served in the Philippine campaign.
The Philippines, a Spanish colony for centuries, was ceded to the United States in 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American War. The country gained independence from the US in 1946.
The brutal Samar campaign was launched about a month after Filipino rebels killed 34 US troops in Balangiga on September 28, 1901, according to a US Army War College research paper.
Seven other American soldiers perished during the escape from Balangiga, and US reinforcements razed the town the day after, it added.
Then-Philippine president Fidel Ramos first sought but failed to recover the bells during a 1998 Washington trip.
Duterte, who took office in mid-2016, demanded the return of the bells during his State of the Nation address last year: “Give us back those Balangiga bells. They are not yours. They are ours. They belong to the Philippines. They are part of our national heritage.”


Doubts over Rohingya repatriation as none wants to return

Updated 15 November 2018
0

Doubts over Rohingya repatriation as none wants to return

  • ‘None of the 50 families interviewed expressed their willingness to go back under the present circumstances’
  • ‘We cannot force them to go back against their will’

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh: Doubts over plans to begin repatriating the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who fled Myanmar last year escalated Thursday as Bangladesh’s refugee commissioner said none wanted to return and that they would not be forced to go.
Terrified refugees, who arrived in Bangladesh with testimony of murder, rape and arson after they escaped a military crackdown last year, went into hiding as authorities insisted they would proceed despite UN warnings.
But Bangladesh’s refugee commissioner cast doubt on whether the plan to send the first batch of 150, from a preliminary 2,260 slated for return, could go ahead as scheduled Thursday.
“According to the UNHCR voluntariness assessment, none of the 50 families interviewed expressed their willingness to go back under the present circumstances. None feels safe to go back now,” Mohammad Abul Kalam said.
Kalam would not say if the planned repatriations for Thursday were canceled.
But he said: “We cannot force them to go back against their will.”
More than 720,000 mostly Muslim Rohingya sought refuge from a Myanmar military crackdown launched from August last year that UN investigators say amounted to ethnic cleansing, joining some 300,000 already in Bangladesh.
Rohingya refugees currently reside in vast camps in southeastern Bangladesh, including a massive settlement in the border district of Cox’s Bazar, where community leaders said most of those marked for repatriation had headed to the hills.
“Ninety-eight percent of the families (on the list) have fled,” community leader Nur Islam said Thursday.
He and other community leaders said that an increase in the number of Bangladeshi soldiers at the camps in recent days had stoked anxiety.
“Everyone is tense, the situation is very bad,” Abdur Rahim, another leader, said in Cox’s Bazar. “There are a lot of army and police inside the camps. They are checking the ID cards of Rohingya.”
A local police chief, Abul Khaer, played down reports of additional security, saying nothing in terms of personnel had changed in recent months.
The UN refugee agency has publicly cautioned against the repatriation going ahead and, in an internal briefing paper seen by AFP, laid out stringent conditions under which it would offer humanitarian assistance to anyone who ends up returning.
In the confidential document dated November 2018, UNHCR said it would only provide aid if returnees were allowed back to the villages they had left or to other locations chosen by them.
Bangladesh authorities have insisted only those who volunteer will be returned but UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said Tuesday that many refugees are panicking at the prospect of being sent back against their will.
“With an almost complete lack of accountability – indeed with ongoing violations – returning Rohingya refugees to Myanmar at this point effectively means throwing them back into the cycle of human rights violations that this community has been suffering for decades,” Bachelet said.
She said that the violations against the Rohingya “amount to the worst atrocities, including crimes against humanity and possibly even genocide.”
Amnesty International on Wednesday called on Bangladesh and Myanmar authorities to “immediately halt” their plans, saying it was a “reckless move which puts lives at risk.”
“These women, men and children would be sent back into the Myanmar military’s grasp with no protection guarantees, to live alongside those who torched their homes and whose bullets they fled,” said Amnesty’s Nicholas Bequelin.
Human Rights Watch echoed the concern on Thursday, asking Bangladesh to “immediately halt” the planned repatriation.
“The Bangladesh government will be stunned to see how quickly international opinion turns against it if it starts sending unwilling Rohingya refugees back into harm’s way in Myanmar,” said Bill Frelick, HRW refugee rights director.
US Vice President Mike Pence told Aung San Suu Kyi on Wednesday that the violence against the Rohingya was “without excuse,” adding pressure to Myanmar’s civilian leader.