MANILA — A few residents of Pag-asa (Thitu) Island in the West Philippine Sea held a modest commemoration of Independence Day on Friday, instead of a big celebration as initially planned by government officials.
A handful of residents, military and police officials, coast guard, and engineers gathered at the island's newly-built sheltered port and stood in front of the Philippine flag to sing Lupang Hinirang, the country's national anthem.
Pag-asa Island hosts Kalayaan town, a Palawan municipality that is home to a military outpost and a civilian community.
According to Kalayaan Mayor Roberto del Mundo, several Cabinet and government officials were supposed to grace the island's Independence Day celebration but they had to cancel the event at the last minute due to bad weather caused by tropical depression Butchoy.
Fear of COVID-19 also prevented other residents from joining, the mayor said.
"Darating sana ang iba naming kababayan pero mayroon namang COVID-19... Darating [din] sana sina [Defense] Secretary [Delfin Lorenzana] pero sumama ang panahon... Ganito talaga dito," said Del Mundo.
After the ceremony, Commodore Allan Corpuz, district commander of Philippine Coast Guard-Palawan, spoke in front of the residents and promised to maintain the islands territorial integrity.
"Pinapangako ko sa inyo na hindi natin ipamimigay ang ating teritoryo, at lagi namin kayong babantayan," Corpuz told residents.
Last Tuesday, top defense officials of the Philippines inaugurated a cemented pier that would let its ships dock on Pag-Asa Island, whose waters were swarmed by over a hundred Chinese boats last year.
The pier, also known as a "beaching ramp," is the first major upgrade of the Philippines in the 9 features it occupies in the West Philippine Sea, parts of which are also claimed by Beijing.
The Philippines and China have seen improved ties under President Rodrigo Duterte, who set aside a United Nations-backed tribunal's 2016 ruling that invalidated Beijing's sweeping claims in the South China Sea.
The West Philippine Sea is the country's exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.
Some 140 Chinese ships that surrounded Pag-asa island last year left after Manila lodged a diplomatic protest over their presence.
— Report from Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News