Monday, April 19, 2010


Revisiting the Smithsonian’s American History Museum over the weekend, we were struck by the role the Philippines played – compared with other US possessions – in shaping American-style freedom and democracy today.

And yet there are thousands of aging Filipinos, those who fought in defense of that freedom and democracy, who still feel they are victims of a terrible American injustice.

Although he publicly declared an aversion to annexation, President William McKinley nevertheless presided over the US occupation of the Philippines – signaling the era of American imperialism (Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and granting statehood for Hawaii – previously a kingdom hijacked by Western businessmen led by Sanford Dole, a cousin of the owner of the pineapple company that bears their name).

On display at the museum is an original letter from Emilio Aguinaldo; a home-made rifle standing beside a Krag-Jorgensen (“Damn, damn the Filipinos! Civilize them with a Krag”); and a flag of the Sulu Sultanate (the US signed a peace treaty with them then promptly broke it after crushing the Filipino insurrection in Luzon), among others.

The annexation of the Philippines sparked bitter debate in America. Mark Twain was originally an ardent imperialist but seeing the human cost of America’s counter-insurgency campaign in the Philippines, he had a change of heart. He wrote “Incident in the Philippines” about the massacre of about 600 mostly unarmed Muslim natives, including women and children, in Bud Dajo, a dormant volcano about eight kilometers from Jolo, Sulu.

Yet when the dark clouds of the Second World War started gathering, Filipinos rallied behind the Americans. Thousands of them mobilized and enlisted with the US Army.

But after the war was won, among the first acts of Congress was to pass a bill withdrawing recognition to some 250,000 Filipino veterans. Of the 66 other nationalities who served under the US flag during World War II, only Filipinos were excluded.

Last April 9 marked the 68th anniversary of the Fall of Bataan, which also commemorates the Bataan March where as many as 10,000 Filipino and 700 American soldiers died. There is a description of that deadly 98-kilometer trek from Guillermo Rumingan, a former US Army Sergeant who now lives in Virginia.

“This day of valor recognition is an important opportunity to remind Americans of the important contributions of the Philippines and Filipino veterans to our country’s collective history,” said Lillian Galedo of NAFVE.

Rumingan and thousands of his comrades have received a modest amount (compared to over half a century of injustice) from the $198 million Philippine Veterans Equity Compensation Fund.

The one-time fund is almost depleted. Over 14,000 Filipino veterans are still waiting for word; more than 8,000 have been denied – many of them because they were not in an “official” US reconstructed list of veterans (the original list was reportedly destroyed by fire in the 60’s).

America values its history. To deprive Filipino veterans their contributions to defending freedom during the darkest hours of the war in the Pacific is to deny part of that history. But like most things in America, remembering carries a price too. It is not automatically bestowed by past events. Everytime a Filipino poses for a picture at the Philippine pillar in the World War II Monument in Washington DC, there is a duty to remember and reflect on why we have that pillar at all. That is perhaps the costliest slab of marble because thousands of Filipinos who've already fought for it, continue to pay for it.

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