The terrorist attack in Marawi City appears to have caught security forces by surprise, but President Duterte’s response was swift: a declaration of martial law in the entire Mindanao, signed even while he was still in Moscow for an official visit. Duterte aborted the trip and promptly flew back to Manila to personally oversee what he vowed would be a “harsh” response to the combined forces of the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups.
The response to another aspect of the threat should be just as decisive. Thousands have been displaced by the firefight and the military’s pursuit of the terrorist fighters in Marawi. The displaced are fleeing the city in vehicles and on foot, but getting out is not easy as security forces search for bandits trying to escape the offensive. Traffic crawls along the roads leading out of the city. Other Marawi residents are hunkered down at home, virtually trapped as supplies and utility services are disrupted.
Social workers have expressed concern about a looming humanitarian crisis as people abandon their homes even with no alternative shelters. Jobs and livelihoods have been disrupted by the firefights. Agencies have started distributing relief goods, but aid is rarely enough and is difficult to sustain. Evacuation centers are inadequate, and the overcrowding raises the risk of diseases spreading, with children and the elderly among the most vulnerable.
President Duterte says he declared martial law because it is his duty to protect the public from armed threats. He must be just as determined in confronting the problems that arise from being displaced by the violence.