Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is never one to hold back, especially with words.

When criticized, he often fires back with his own verbal ammunition. And his frequent target has been the United States, which, as he has repeatedly said, is in no place to criticize him for violating human rights because of its own history of atrocities against Filipinos. For Duterte, that history stretches all the way back to the 1900s, when Filipinos fought for independence from U.S. control.

Duterte dredged up one such piece of history during his second State of the Nation address on Monday.

It was about three church bells that American troops took as spoils of war after burning down Balangiga, a small seaside village on the island of Samar in the Visayas region of the Philippines, in retaliation against Filipino guerrillas. One of the bronze bells was taken to a military museum in South Korea. The other two have been on display at Francis E. Warren Air Force Base near Cheyenne, Wyo.

For Filipinos, the bells are rightfully theirs, a reminder of the slaughter of thousands of civilians, including women and children.

“Those bells are reminders of the gallantry and heroism of our forebears . . . who resisted the American colonization and sacrificed their lives in the process. Give us back those Balangiga bells. They are ours. They belong to the Philippines. They are part of our national heritage,” Duterte said toward the end of a lengthy address in which he frequently veered off script, lashed out at critics and political enemies, and used an informal tone sprinkled with Tagalog expletives.

After applause that lasted a few seconds, he added, in Tagalog: “Return them. It’s painful for us.”

What those bells signify for the United States, especially for veterans, is entirely different. They honor the American soldiers who were killed in September 1901, when Filipino guerrillas disguised as women carrying coffins infiltrated Balangiga and ambushed an Army base. According to the Francis E. Warren Air Force Base website, the bells were tolled as a signal for the guerrillas to start attacking.

About four dozen Americans were killed, prompting swift and brutal retribution from the United States. Brig. Gen. Jacob W. Smith ordered his men to kill anyone who could bear arms. To him, that meant anyone age 10 and older.

“I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better it will please me,” Smith said.

In a handwritten message delivered to his subordinate, Maj. Littleton Waller, he wrote that “the interior of Samar must be made a howling wilderness.”

The iconic bells have long been at the center of a tug of war between the United States and the Philippines.

In the late 1990s, Philippine President Fidel V. Ramos asked President Bill Clinton to return one of the bells. In 2014, more than 3,000 Filipinos signed an online petition asking President Barack Obama to return the bells.

After he took office, Duterte resurrected calls for the United States to give back what Filipinos see as religious symbols, not trophies of war.

“Until now, they hijacked it, stole it and never returned it to us,” Duterte said during a speech last year at a Philippine air force event, ABS-CBN News reported.

After former first daughter Chelsea Clinton slammed his remarks, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte lashes out at her and dwells on her dad's alleged misdeeds (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Another piece of history that Duterte has frequently brought up is the Battle of Bud Dajo in 1906 on the island of Jolo in the southernmost part of the Philippines. American troops killed hundreds of Moro men, women and children trapped in the crater of the Bud Dajo volcano, as the United States tried to take control of the country’s Muslim stronghold.

By then, much of the Filipino resistance against the United States had dissipated, and President Theodore Roosevelt had declared the Philippine-American War over four years earlier. But the country’s Muslim minority in the south resisted in what became a long, drawn-out battle.

Duterte talked about the Battle of Bud Dajo as recently as last week in response to criticisms from Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who said he would protest if the Filipino leader came to the United States at President Trump’s invitation.

McGovern led a hearing in Congress on Thursday on Duterte’s drug war, which has resulted in a mass killing of suspected addicts and dealers in the Philippines. More than 7,000 deaths have been reported from July 1, 2016, to Jan. 21, according to the Philippine National Police. The killings were carried out by both police and unidentified vigilantes.

“We should be clear what an extrajudicial killing or execution is: It is the purposeful killing of a person by governmental authorities without the sanction of any judicial proceeding,” McGovern said in his opening remarks. “No arrest. No warrant. No judge. No jury. Simply, murder.”

Duterte shot back, telling reporters Friday that he can — and will — investigate the United States’ history of human rights violation.

“You’re investigating me and the internal affairs of my country? I'm investigating you, and I will investigate you, and I will expose it to the world what you did to the Filipinos, especially to the Moro Filipinos,” he said.

Duterte also said he will never come to the United States during or after his term — despite an invitation from Trump a few months ago.

“I’ve seen America, and it’s lousy,” Duterte told reporters.

Unlike his predecessor, Trump has praised Duterte’s drug war, telling the controversial Filipino leader in a phone call in April that he’s doing a “great job.”

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