By: John Berthelsen

At a time when the United States is trying to shore up support for its strategic aims in Southeast Asia against Chinese encroachment, a bitter reminder of past atrocities committed by US forces in the Philippines more than a century ago has stalled US Senate confirmation of the next US ambassador to Indonesia.

Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso is holding up the appointment of Ambassador Sung Kim, who is currently the Philippine envoy, because Kim was in Manila in November 2018 when three bells stolen from the Philippines in one of the most disgraceful episodes in US military history were returned. The current US ambassador to Indonesia, Joseph R. Donovan Jr., is due to leave in February.

Two of the three bells, looted from a Catholic church in the town of Balangiga during the US-Philippine war from 1899 to 2002 after an attack on US troops, were in Barrasso’s home state of Wyoming, where they had been spirited to by US troops and where veterans’ groups insisted they remain. The third, which was believed to have signaled the attack on the US troops, had been held by a US Army unit in South Korea.

A request for a statement from Barrasso’s office was met with a thank you and a note that “it is my policy to respond only to inquiries from Wyoming constituents.” Barrasso and his fellow Republicans, Sen. Mike Enzi and Rep. Liz Cheney, told Reuters at the time they were returned that “We continue to oppose any efforts by the administration to move the bells to the Philippines without the support of Wyoming’s veteran’s community.”

However, in a prepared statement on his US Senate website on October 16, 2019, Barrasso said he was opposing Kim’s appointment to the Indonesian post because “the bells of Balangiga were not just some bells indiscriminately taken during the Philippine Insurrection. These bells were part of a veteran memorial located in Wyoming that paid tribute to the massacre of C Company, 9th Infantry. The Bells of Balangiga were used by the Filipino insurgents to signal the attack on American soldiers while they were asleep.”

Kim’s support for moving the bells to the Philippines resulted in tearing down a veteran memorial, he continued, adding that “dismantling this veteran memorial was completely unacceptable. It also sets a dangerous precedent for future veteran and war memorials. Mr. Kim’s support and involvement helped establish a bad precedent for the future.” 

“Here we have the Indonesians standing up to China and some idiot in Wyoming holds up the nomination of the next ambassador,” a Jakarta-based source said. “This chap Kim is by all accounts first rate. This is ridiculous. This guy’s knuckles drag quite charmingly on the floor.”

Indonesia has been playing an increasingly important part in Southeast Asian attempts to fend off Chinese domination of the entire South China Sea, in early January routing Chinese fishing boats and Coast Guard ships protecting them from Indonesian fishing grounds in the North Natuna area. The United States has been playing a losing game with China for primacy in the area.

Barrasso didn’t mention in his statement that Brigadier General Jacob H Smith ordered troops to “reduce Samar to a howling wilderness,” as he called it, after Filipino insurgents armed with machetes, some disguised as women, set on an unprepared US Army unit at breakfast, killing 48 of 75 soldiers of the US 9th infantry on September 28, 1901.

Smith issued orders to kill anybody capable of bearing arms, to which US troops responded with enthusiasm. By some estimates, as many as 50,000 Filipinos including women and children are believed to have died across the province. The US Army burned houses, destroyed boats, slaughtered water buffalo and confiscated food stocks from starving people – and stole the bells from the St Lawrence the Martyr Church. Ultimately, Smith was court-martialed over the atrocity and cashiered from the army. 

Although the bells had been gone from the church for nearly 120 years, they weren’t forgotten by the people of Samar, the province where the massacre took place. The Philippine government argued for decades demanding their return. Finally, in 2018, the bells were returned, with Sung Kim, a professional diplomat, presiding and saying it was his honor “to be here at this closing of a painful chapter in our history.”

It was then-defense secretary James Mattis (above, with Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez) who recommended that the bells be returned. Retired U.S. Navy Capt. Dennis Wright told US media that any US claim to the bells on the basis of some deep attachment couldn’t be justified. The two bells, Wright said at the time, were ignored for decades, sitting in a warehouse unnoticed before they were finally put on display at the air base.

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