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On the eve of Trump visit

For all the uncertainty that President Trump has wrought to the global geopolitical and economic dynamics – essentially turning his back on the two established basis on which the world has prospered (the free movement of goods, services and people underpinned by Pax Americana) – there is one action he can take to endear his presidency in the hearts of millions of Filipinos in our country and globally.

That action is the return of the Balangiga Bells – long seen by Filipinos as representing a very dark chapter in the otherwise strong bond between our two nations.

To recall, the US army took three bells from the town church of Balangiga in Eastern Samar in 1901, after massacring all the men and razing the town to the ground in retaliation for the deadly ambush of a US Army unit during the Philippine-American War. One of the bells is currently at an American Base in South Korea and the other two are at an Air Force base in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

I distinctly remember that when I was secretary of foreign affairs, former president Fidel V. Ramos appealed for the return of the bells. Again during the time of former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, whom I accompanied in a teleconference with the then vice-president Cheney and where she also asked for the bells’ return. Neither appeal was successful.

I understand that Cheney’s daughter Liz is now one of the strongest opponents to the return of the bells to our country. At the end of the day, the bells are legally owned by the Catholic Church, not the US Armed Forces. As my American friend Henry Howard wrote to President Trump on Oct. 12, 2017: “There is no political downside for you in Wyoming by returning the bells since you won so overwhelmingly there and there is tremendous upside for you as president of the United States in the Philippines by returning the bells before or during your trip to the Philippines in November. ……As the president of the United States and commander in chief of the US Army and US Air Force, you have the command and legal authority to permit the prompt return of the three bells.”

If President Trump does indeed send the bells back, it would be an important step in Philippine-US relations and it would remove this long and deep wound between our two countries.

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Revisiting Bangkok

It has been almost 35 years since my wife and I left Bangkok for my new job in Manila. Earlier this week, we returned to Bangkok on the day of the formal cremation of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who was the longest-serving head of state at the time of his death in 2016. As we drove to the city, we were amazed to find the entire Thai population dressed in black. It was reported that 18 million Thai subjects were witness to the ceremonies. Such was the reverence and affection for their monarch.

The traditional Thai culture of courtesy and desire to serve is evident everywhere we go. Moreover, it should be noted that they performed their assigned tasks with a certain pride of workmanship.

Bangkok traffic is as bad, if not worse than Manila, probably because there are more cars sold. But there is a difference: no zigzagging, motorists patiently wait with no horns blazing and the drivers do not tailgate each other. I suspect the motorists are better trained before being issued a driver’s license and they obey traffic laws. Bangkok’s elevated trains are always on time, well maintained and the interiors are clean and the passengers are quiet. They deliberately refrain from making noise. Plans are underway for the construction of elevators at every train stop, especially for senior citizens and the disabled.

I prefer to go to the shopping malls and to the well-known Central Department Store which is now a very large chain throughout the country as well as in China. The Central Group is owned and managed by the Chirathivat family, comparable to the SM Group of the Sy family in the Philippines. The stores’ retail sophistication is equivalent to that of New York Fifth Avenue’s finest, but there is a difference: the staff is well trained and extremely courteous, quite unlike the brusqueness of the New Yorker and unfortunately, the ignorance of the casual employees in Manila’s finest.  One major disadvantage for the foreign shopper is the lack of English fluency.

Our children joined us three days after our arrival. My son, an investment banker, was stunned by the new infrastructure and, particularly, by the skyway from the Suvannabhumi airport. He remembered the roads and the time it took us to go the old airport in the early ’80s.  He learned that the economy will grow from 3.5 to four percent this year, which is an improvement from the past under martial law. Thailand’s tourism statistics showed a robustness which our figures could never equal, with the number of tourists reaching 17.3 million in the first half of 2017 and projected tourism revenue at $50 billion this year. Thailand is 3rd in world tourism, only surpassed by the USA and Spain. He attributed it to the aggressive infrastructure built up in the past, which has paved the way for the appropriate welcome mat for tourism. He also pointed out that in the latest World Bank ranking on the ease of doing business, Thailand was 26th out of 190 economies. He expressed concern if the country could move forward in the same manner with the death of their beloved King and military rule in place.        

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