MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday promised an unrelenting war on drugs, defying critics who were “trivializing” his campaign with human rights concerns and unjustly blaming the authorities for the bloodshed.
Duterte wasted little time in his annual state of the nation address to defend a crackdown that has killed thousands of Filipinos. He said that though he valued human life, he needed to tackle “beasts and vultures” that were preying on helpless people and stopping foreign investment from pouring in.
“The fight will be unremitting as it will be unrelenting despite international and local pressure, the fight will not stop,” he said.
“I do not intend to loosen the leash in the campaign or lose the fight against illegal drugs, neither do I intend to preside over the destruction of the Filipino youth by being timid and tentative in my decisions in office.”
The crackdown on drugs is the signature campaign that has defined Duterte’s presidency and caused an international outcry, with rights groups condemning his administration for a campaign that has overwhelmingly targeted drug users from poor communities, and left narcotics kingpins untouched.
Critics say Duterte has turned a blind eye to thousands of deaths during police operations that bear all the hallmarks of executions. Police say they have shot dead suspects only in self defense and deny involvement in a spree of killings of drug users by mysterious vigilantes.
Duterte said critics were wrongly blaming police for most of the deaths and “trivializing” his campaign by talking about the need for due process and to protect human rights.
He said his detractors at home and abroad should help him instead.
“Your efforts will be better spent if you use the influence, moral authority, moral ascendancy of your organizations over your respective sectors to educate the people on the evil of illegal drugs, instead of condemning the authorities, unjustly blaming for every killing that bloodies this country,” he said.
Duterte’s annual address lasted nearly two hours, during which he frequently deviated from a prepared speech that was eventually reduced to brief talking points.
Some 7,000 protesters from numerous groups gathered outside the venue to demonstrate against Duterte. After his speech, he listened to their complaints for several minutes.
He lashed out strongly at mining companies he said were destroying the environment and threatened to tax them heavily, or close the sector completely.
He said he would consider stopping exports of raw materials until they could be processed domestically, adding it was a “non-negotiable” policy that mining firms would repair damage they had caused, or “I will tax you to death”.
Duterte called on the Senate to pass a tax reform bill to help finance a multi-billion infrastructure program key to his economic agenda.
The lower house passed a leaner version of the proposed measure, the first of five tax reform packages Duterte is pushing to boost state coffers and make the tax system fairer and more simple.
Expected revenues from the original draft, which seeks to cut the personal income tax rate, raise excise taxes on fuel and automobiles, amounted to 162 billion pesos ($3.2 billion).
Duterte also said he would press the legislature to pass a law to grant autonomy to a predominantly Muslim region in Mindanao, a move experts say could help arrest the spread of extremist ideology.
He also said he was prepared to “wait it out” before retaking Mindanao’s Marawi City from Islamic State-inspired rebels, because he was concerned hostages might be killed. He acknowledged there had been intelligence failures and mistakes in assessing the initial threat.
Duterte told reporters he would add 35,000-40,000 new troops over the next two years and buy planes and high-altitude drones to “build an armed forces that can fight all fronts, everywhere”.
Senator Risa Hontiveros, a critic of Duterte, described the president’s much-anticipated address as “a bad open mic performance”.
Additional reporting by Neil Jerome Morales, Enrico dela Cruz and Manuel Mogato; Editing by Nick Macfie