Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte leads the flag-raising rites during the 120th Philippine Independence Day celebration at the Emilio Aguinaldo Shrine at Kawit, Cavite. Image Credit: AP

Manila: President Rodrigo Duterte led commemorations of the Philippines’ Freedom Day in historic Kawit city, in Cavite, but his speech was disrupted by demonstrators and amid perceptions the leader is gradually kowtowing to China.

The president, who delivered his Freedom Day speech at the Aguinaldo Shrine in Kawit, said 120 years since the country gained freedom, it was now confronted with new social ills.

“May the solidarity and heroism exhibited by our ancestors fuel our desire to spur meaningful and lasting change in our communities as we collectively battle the social ills of corruption, illegal drugs, and criminality that impede our progress as a nation,” Duterte said.

Inside the Aguinaldo Shrine, Duterte met with several dignitaries including China’s Ambassador Zhao Jianhua.

Minutes before the president was due to deliver his speech, a group of protesters had gathered despite the rains and held a demonstration.

Plainclothes policemen lead away activists who heckled President Rodrigo Duterte while speaking during the 120th Philippine Independence day celebration at the Emilio Aguinaldo shrine in Kawit, Cavite. Reuters

The irony of the president leading Independence Day rites was not lost to the demonstrators who slammed him for alleged increasing subservience to China.

“Hunyo 12, Huwad na Kalayaan, Duterte patalsikin [June 12, bogus freedom, oust Duterte],” the group chanted as police immediately rounded up the small group of demonstrators.

According to Senator Francis Pangilinan, 120 years after the Philippines gained independence from Spain, it now faces continuing violations of territory and resources from China and the government under Duterte should act on this.

“Not since the Second World War have we faced such a serious threat to our sovereignty, to the very definition of who we are, to our very existence and survival as a country,” Pangilinan said.

China had been pushing the limits of its territory in the South China Sea at the expense of the Philippines.

According to Senator Bam Aquino, China has been dictating the movement of vessels over the areas disputed with the Philippines such as Panatag Shoal or Scarborough Shoal, through its coast guard ships in the area.

A Filipino fisherman interviewed on Monday on television claimed the Chinese coast guard was blocking access of bigger Filipino fishing vessels.

“We shouldn’t need China’s permission to fish in our own waters,” Aquino said as he referred to the waters of Scarborough Shoal, which is located some 240 kilometres from the Philippines’ Zambales province.

“If Malacañang [the presidential palace] will not side with the Filipino people on this issue, then the Senate can take the lead in defending our country,” said Aquino, adding that the Senate can and should investigate the country’s dealing with China.

Senator Franklin Drilon earlier urged the Senate to take a definitive stand against what had been perceived as “China’s quiet invasion.”

“The Senate should take a stand on the creeping invasion of Philippine territory in the South China Sea,” he said.