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President Benigno Aquino salutes the honour guard during the Independence Day celebration, two weeks before Aquino will relinguish his post to newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte (not pictured) in Manila, Philippines June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

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MANILA (Reuters) - Philippines President Benigno Aquino on Sunday appealed to Filipinos to defend their freedom and democracy and remain vigilant as he warned the horrors of martial law under the late Ferdinand Marcos could happen again.

In his last Independence Day speech before stepping down on June 30, Aquino hailed the transformation of the Philippines during his term from being the "Sick Man of Asia" to one of the fastest growing economies. He said such progress came without disregard for the rule of law, due process and human rights.

As the Southeast Asian nation prepares for a change in leadership, some people fear Aquino's successor, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, could take a more authoritarian path.

Part of Aquino's speech was a video presentation about how his father and namesake and the entire family suffered during the martial law years. His father was assassinated in 1983 at Manila's international airport, three years before a mass uprising that toppled Marcos.

"If we are not going to be vigilant, it could happen again," Aquino said after the video presentation at the palace event attended by diplomats, top government officials and business executives.

Duterte remains hugely popular despite his comments about extrajudicial killings, calling bishops "sons of whores" and a joke about a murdered rape victim.

His latest controversial comment saying journalists were "not exempted from assassination" raised concerns, though he later clarified that he does "not condone nor tolerate killing of journalists, regardless of the motive of the killers, or the reason for their killing."

Duterte has also said he would allow the burial of Marcos at the Philippines' heroes' cemetery, despite strong opposition led by the Aquino family.

Marcos' son and namesake said on Saturday his father's body, which remains in a glass coffin in a mausoleum in his hometown Ilocos Norte, would be transferred to the heroes' cemetery possibly in September.

Marcos, who ran and lost the vice presidency in the May 9 election, said he and Duterte discussed the burial plans and the possibility of a Cabinet position for him in the new administration in a meeting in Davao City over the weekend.

(Reporting by Enrico dela Cruz; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

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