MANILA • Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte yesterday vowed to sustain the momentum of his bloody war on drugs, telling the nation in an annual address that the fight would be as "relentless and chilling" as during his first two years in power.
Mr Duterte told Congress that the anti-narcotics campaign, which has earned him international notoriety, was "far from over", taking a swipe at activists and political opponents seeking to bring him to book for thousands of killings.
"Let me begin by putting it bluntly: the war against illegal drugs is far from over. It will be as relentless and chilling, if you will, as on the day it began," he told hundreds of assembled lawmakers, celebrities and dignitaries.
"If you think that I can be dissuaded from continuing this fight because of demonstrations, your protests which I find misdirected, then you got it all wrong," he said, referring to critics. "Your concern is human rights, mine is human lives," he added.
He said his fierce campaign is aimed at protecting the public from illicit drugs, as the "lives of our youth are being wasted" and families destroyed.
Since Mr Duterte came to power, police have killed more than 4,500 people they say were suspected drug pushers who resisted arrest.
Police say several thousand other deaths are believed to be drug related, and at the hands of vigilantes or rival gang members.
Human rights groups alarmed by the bloodshed say many of the killings were summary executions by police who were systematically exterminating drug users in the poorest communities. Police vigorously rebut those allegations.
Mr Duterte reiterated that his foreign policy would not ally with any one power, but that ties with historic foe China had been "re-energised", bringing unprecedented cooperation in the battle on transnational crime and dismantling clandestine drug laboratories.
But those warmer relations would not come at the expense of the Philippines' territorial integrity and economic interests in the South China Sea, he added.
Mr Duterte read his prepared 50-minute speech in full, unlike his two previous addresses, when he eventually ditched his script to improvise and ramble.
He asked Congress to pass a law to give proper labour contracts to millions of people in short-term employment, to protect the environment and grant the Muslim minority the right to self-rule.
Thousands of women, students, left-wing activists and church-based groups gathered outside Congress to denounce what they said were Mr Duterte's anti-poor policies and widespread abuses of human rights.
This year's address was marked by high drama as political infighting in Congress delayed the passage of autonomy legislation for the nation's Muslim minority. After years of political wrangling and negotiations, a final draft of the proposed law was on the point of being approved and sent to Mr Duterte for his signature.
But a fight for control of the top post in the House of Representatives led to the delay of a final vote.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE