PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte led the nation in celebrating its 123rd Independence Day on Saturday as he paid tribute to the country's health care workers and other frontliners who have been battling the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic.

In his message during the Independence Day rites in Malolos, Bulacan, Duterte recognized the sacrifices of these "modern day heroes" whose names will be inscribed in a "wall of heroes" at the Libingan ng mga Bayani in Taguig City.

Duterte, who attended the Independence Day rites only for the second time in his presidency, said the wall was now being built and thanked the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

Duterte also urged Filipinos to reflect on history to remember the courage and determination of the nation's heroes in fighting for the country's freedom.

"We are now a nation that is modern, progressive and ever thriving. However, our continued progress will only be possible if we have a strong understanding and appreciation of the liberties that we enjoy today," said the President whose first appearance in an Independence Day celebration was in 2018 in Kawit, Cavite, where he was heckled by demonstrators as he started his speech.

"Let us move forward in solidarity and give greater meaning to the freedom of our forefathers achieved for us 123 years ago," the President added.

Earlier on Saturday, Duterte, in a taped message aired during ceremonies at the Rizal Park in Manila, said Filipinos can be "heroes in their own right."

He acknowledged that "the challenges of the past year have tested our character as a nation."

"Each of us have been called upon to be heroes in our own right in fighting for our survival and devoting ourselves to the common good just as our heroes did more than a century ago," Duterte said.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra and Manila Mayor Francisco "Isko Moreno" Domagoso led the flag raising ceremony at Rizal Park.

Draw strength from each other

Vice President Maria Leonor "Leni" Robredo said Filipinos should continue to draw strength from each other to face the continuing challenges to the nation's freedom and independence as she recognized what others went through to achieve the "freedom we have now."

Robredo recalled the challenges and sacrifices of Filipinos through decades, hailing their courage to fight the "powerful" and prove "we are neither 'weak' nor 'divided.'"

In Malacañang, Presidential peace adviser and vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. said that the country's freedom "is once again endangered not by a foreign nation who wants to rule over us but by a pandemic that has upended all aspects of our daily lives."

However, Galvez said during these challenging times, "heroes have emerged" as he paid tribute to "the brave men and women who serve in hospitals, health centers, government offices, fast food stores, factories and checkpoints amid the threat of disease."

Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar expressed optimism that the Philippines would become "victorious" in its battle against the virus and enjoined Filipinos to value the "firm foundations" set by the country's forefathers as "we collectively rise and recover from the challenges and difficulties it has brought to our nation."

Milestones

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, during a virtual flag raising ceremony, cited the "great milestones" of the AFP in enhancing its capacity and capability "to protect the integrity of our national territory and defend our sovereignty as well as our sovereign rights."

He also took pride in the success of the Philippine government in reducing local terrorist groups and strengthening defense and security bilateral and multilateral partnerships and cooperation with other nations.

Local Government Secretary Eduardo Año said that while the country has been freed from foreign occupation, "our freedoms are still continually challenged by the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People's Army-National Democratic Front (CPP-NPA-NDF) and the obsolete and archaic ideology they pit against our democratic way of life."