Philippines President, Rodrigo Duterte

President Rodrigo Duterte of Philippines on Monday vowed that his campaign against illegal drugs will be “as relentless and chilling as on the day it began,” ignoring unabated criticisms over thousands killed in the crackdown.

In his annual state-of-the-nation address in Congress, the 73-year-old leader said he could not be dissuaded from the fight against illegal drugs by protests from human rights activists and other critics.

“Let me begin by putting it bluntly: the war against illegal drugs is far from over,” he said, adding that billions of pesos of narcotics were still being seized by law enforcers.

“This is why the illegal drugs war will not be sidelined,” he added.

“Instead, it will be as relentless and chilling, if you will, as on the day it began.”

As tens of thousands of people rallied outside Congress to protest Duterte’s alleged autocratic rule and violence under his administration, the president said such demonstrations were “misdirected.”

“Your concern is human rights, mine is human lives.

“The lives of our youth are being wasted and families are destroyed, and all because of the chemicals called shabu, cocaine, cannabis and heroin,” he said.

Shabu is a slang term for methamphetamine in the region.

The speech was delayed for more than an hour after a stand-off between lawmakers who wanted to elect a new speaker of the House of Representatives, which also delayed the ratification of a law that Duterte was supposed to sign.

The law would have paved way for the creation of a new Muslim autonomous entity in the southern region of Mindanao, which would fulfil a peace agreement signed by the government with Muslim separatist rebels in 2014.

Duterte said the law would give the Muslim minority in the Philippines “the basic legal tolls to chart their own destiny within the constitutional framework of our country.”

“Mindanao was dubbed as ‘The Land of Promise,’ and Mindanaoans say in derision that this is so because what it got from the governments through the years were promises, promises and more promises.

“We aim to rectify that derisive observation, at the end of my term, I hope to see the promise of Mindanao fulfilled, or at the very least, approaching fulfilment,” he said.

Duterte vowed to sign the law in 48 hours as soon as he gets the approved version from the House of Representatives.

The Senate approved the law earlier in the day.

About 4km away from the Batasang Pambansa complex where the speech was made, activists burned effigies and carried banners denouncing Duterte’s “fascist” and “tyrannical” regime and calling for a stop to the killings.

Since July 2016, more than 4,200 people have been killed in anti-drug operations by the police, according to official statistics.

The New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch said the actual death toll could be more than 12,000, including victims of hired or vigilante killers, based on estimates by local rights and church groups.

“Two years under his tyrannical regime, he has waged wars of suppression that resulted in a violent bloodbath and well-planned fascist attacks to establish his dictatorial ambitions,” the College Editors Guild of the Philippines said in a statement.

“To fulfil his dictatorial ambitions, it is necessary for Duterte to go on a murderous campaign to silence all political forces hindering his vile plans.

“Thousands have already been killed under his bloody war on drugs and counterinsurgency (operations),” the guild said.

No fewer than 6,000 anti-riot police officers have been deployed around the Batasang Pambansa complex.