Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos said Monday the nation's anti-narcotics campaign has "taken on a new face" with a focus on rehabilitation and education, but activists insist people are still being killed illegally.
Thousands of people have been killed in the drug war started by former president Rodrigo Duterte in 2016, sparking condemnation and an international probe into alleged human rights abuses.
The deadly crackdown has continued under Marcos, the son and namesake of the country's former dictator, even as he pushed for a greater emphasis on prevention and treatment.
More than 350 drug-related killings have been recorded since Marcos took office in June 2022, according to figures compiled by Dahas, a University of the Philippines-backed research project that keeps a count of such killings.
"The campaign against illegal drugs continues but it has taken on a new face," Marcos said in his second State of the Nation address to lawmakers, diplomats and judges.
"It is now geared towards community-based treatment, rehabilitation, education and reintegration to curb drug dependence amongst our affected citizenry," he said.
Marcos said the government would also "relentlessly continue our fight against drug syndicates" and crack down on "unscrupulous law enforcers" involved in the drug trade.
"I will be accepting their resignations," he said to cheers and applause.
Nearly a thousand top-ranking police were asked to resign in January as the government sought to clear the corruption-tainted force of officers involved in illegal drugs.
It is not clear how many resignations have been accepted so far.
Human rights activists expressed outrage at Marcos's speech, which came days after his declaration that the Philippines would no longer deal with the International Criminal Court after The Hague-based tribunal rejected Manila's appeal to stop a drug war investigation.
"The supposed new face of his anti-narcotics campaign is merely a rehash of tired old PR lines that mean literally nothing in the context of the continuing EJKs (extra-judicial killings) in his drug war, and his disinterest and even contempt for justice for the victims during the past administration," said Cristina Palabay of human rights alliance Karapatan.
- 'Passing grade' -
Several thousand protesters marched peacefully along a major avenue in the capital Manila hours before Marcos's speech to demand higher pay, more jobs and protection of human rights.
Riot police did not intervene as the marchers later set fire to a large two-faced effigy of Marcos, who they accused of pursuing the deadly narcotics crackdown while at the same time mouthing calls for national unity.
Marcos also used his 71-minute speech to highlight his government's efforts in the past year to boost agricultural productivity, improve education and build infrastructure.
He also sought to drum up congressional support for his legislative agenda, including reforming the military and uniformed personnel pension system to make it more sustainable, and granting amnesties to insurgents who surrender.
Many observers had set a low bar for judging Marcos's performance after Duterte's turbulent years, when the brutal drug war tarnished the country's image, diplomatic relations with the West were strained and economic growth tanked during the Covid-19 pandemic.
For some, he has exceeded expectations.
"He was pleasantly surprising in many ways, especially for those who feared that the Philippines would go over the cliff," said political analyst Richard Heydarian, who gave Marcos's first year a "passing grade".
Heydarian said Marcos's greatest achievement so far was writing off $1.04 billion in land-related debt owed by more than half a million farmers.