MANILA - President Benigno Aquino leads the 116th anniversary of the nation's independence Thursday amid the heat from tensions in the West Philippine Sea and the multibillion-peso pork barrel scam.
Aquino will kick off nationwide Independence Day rites from Naga City's Quince Martires Plaza, on the same day critics are holding an anti-pork barrel scam rally in Manila.
While Aquino has not been tagged himself, ranking officials of his administration have been linked to the scandal.
"The President will go to Naga," Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said Wednesday. "It will be to honor the Quince Martires -- 15 martyrs in Bicol who were executed. The President will be going through different areas of the country where these areas played a role in our independence. So, this year it will be in Naga City and afterwards he will fly back to Manila to host the Vin d’ Honneur."
The Palace denied that the President is escaping the political heat in Metro Manila. "The President has made it a tradition to visit the sites where there was a contribution to Philippine independence," Lacierda said.
"He went, for instance, a year ago to Liwasang Bonifacio; two years ago in Malolos, Bulacan; and a year before that in Tarlac—no, not Tarlac. The first one was Kawit and then Malolos, and then Liwasang Bonifacio. Now it’s Naga City," he added.
"But he’s been moving around the country to show—to highlight the contribution of the regions’ contribution in the struggle for independence. Not in any way related to the fact that there is a Scrap Pork Network rally tomorrow. They’re free to do that. We have a vibrant democracy,” Lacierda said.
The Palace assured the public it has done all it can to ensure accountability in the pork barrel scam that led to alleged kickbacks to lawmakers.
“It is now up to the Sandiganbayan to determine whether there is probable cause," Lacierda said. "They will all be evaluated. Whether you are friend or foe. We’ve already filed a case against an ally of the President. We are color-blind as to culpability."
Malacanang kept its distance from the plea of Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales to create special courts for the pork barrel scam trials. The Supreme Court has yet to decide on the issue.
“We are supportive of the Constitutional principles on the right of accused to speedy trial but we will leave it with the Supreme Court and also with the Sandiganbayan as to how to address the plea made by the Office of the Ombudsman," Lacierda said.
DISPUTE WITH CHINA
Heat is also rising from tensions with China over the West Philippine Sea.
On Tuesday, China’s envoy pressed for better trust and relations between the two countries, reminding the Philippines of Beijing's economic might and what Manila could lose.
Lacierda, however, indicated that economic might isn’t always right. "So you see different levels of exchange but that doesn’t mean that just because China is investing in this country, does not —it shouldn’t stop us from asserting or filing an arbitration case against them when it comes to our EEZ."
"There are different levels of exchange between us and so our levels of exchange are—have… with(the) exception of the arbitration case, have been very positive with China. And for that reason, we can continue to engage China on those levels. But with respect to South China Sea, we have made a stand. Let’s resort to arbitration."
Lacierda, however, indicated that the Aquino administration is satisfied by the apparent olive branch that the Chinese envoy has offered. "We certainly welcome the change of tone; one that would foster understanding between China and Philippines when it comes to the South China Sea."
INDEPENDENCE DAY ACTIVITIES
The National Steering Committee on National Observances headed by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines has also announced the various activities for this year’s celebration of Independence Day.
This year’s theme is“Pagsunod sa Yapak ng mga Dakilang Pilipino, Tungo sa Malawakan at Permanenteng Pagbabago.”
Simultaneous flag-raising and wreath-laying rites will be conducted at exactly 8 a.m. in Naga City with President Aquino as guest of honor.
Activities at the Plaza Quince Martires will be replicated at the Rizal National Monument, Rizal Park, Manila, Emilio Aguinaldo Shrine, Kawit, Cavite, Barasoain Church Historical Landmark, Malolos City, Bulacan, Pinaglabanan Memorial Shrine, San Juan City, Bonifacio National Monument, Caloocan City, Mausoleo de los Veteranos de la Revolucion, North Cemetery, Manila and the Pamintuan House in Angeles City.
Various cultural events and performances will be showcased at selected SM Malls and at the Rizal Park Open Air Auditorium, Manila.
Government agencies will also present their flagship projects and community services during the Independence Day festivities.