COMMENTARY: Ano ang nangyari kay Kian?

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/ 02 September) — The death of a 17-year-old Grade 12 student who died in a police anti-drug operation in Caloocan last August 16 raises the question “ano ang nangyari kay Kian?” It probes not only into the circumstances of the life and death of Kian Loyd delos Santos, but also raises concerns about the multiple aspects of truth in an increasingly violent society, and the implications moving forward.

A meme that raised the same question, and put forward the vantage points of the police, his family, the CCTV, and a witness has been going around social media sites. It is also a good device for illustrating that truth, far from being singular, can have a plural nature, but must need to build on and transform that plurality to lead to justice, healing, and reconciliation

The Transitional Justice-Dealing with the Past framework acknowledges that in societies dealing with massive human rights abuse, upholding the right to know means engaging with not only factual or forensic truth, but also those of the personal or narrative, legal or judicial, social or popular, and healing and restorative kinds.

Factual or Forensic, Personal or Narrative, Legal or Judicial, and Social Truths

Factual or forensic truth pertains to the investigation and consideration of evidence. In the case of Kian, the CCTV footage that showed two police officers dragging a hooded figure who allegedly was Kian, and followed by a third enforcer is an example of factual or forensic truth. Far from being the objective and impartial source, this kind of truth is also contested. For instance, the police who were implicated in the death claimed that the hooded figure was not Kian at all but an intelligence “asset” and that Kian had run away at the sight of them. Allegedly, Kian had then fired at the enforcers, forcing them to shoot back.

The statements of witnesses and those of the family and community of the victims are personal or narrative truths. Kian’s family lamented that he was a young man who was reared well, was a diligent student, and even wanted to join the police force in the future. A witness claimed to have overheard that the police had told Kian to take a gun—ostensibly held out to him—fire it, and then run away. Such truths have often been dismissed for being subjective, or worse self-serving, but they are important in achieving healing and reconciliation.

Legal or judicial truth is represented by the investigative efforts of police, other bodies, and legislators. Interestingly, the autopsies undertaken by the Public Attorney’s Office and the Philippine National Police differed in their reckoning of the number of times Kian was shot and the distance of the shooter. Unfortunately, this type of truth merely pertains to what Summers described as “whatever is found as fact by the legal fact-finder (judge or lay jurors or both), whether it accords with substantive truth or not.”

As has been painfully borne out by rulings related to the burial of former President Marcos, the declaration of Martial Law and the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus in Mindanao, what is legal is not necessarily just.

That which is generally accepted by large segments of the population is regarded as social or popular truth. Social media, or the new mass media, is one ground where contestation over Kian’s death is being bitterly fought.

There are those who go beyond the victimization of Kian and focus on making him and his life more known to the public. Efforts of this nature resist reducing Kian and other victims to being part of statistics. In an environment where the number of civilian casualties rapidly increases on a daily basis, and are justified as merely being at pace with the frenzy of anti-illegal drugs operations, it is important to give human faces and dimensions to the consequences of the violent campaign. In particular, victims coming from the youth and children, in whose name the campaign is time and again rationalized, have to be acknowledged.

There is also the narrative of those who believe that Kian was an actor, albeit a small one, in illegal drugs. But this view insidiously endorses the thinking that therefore Kian and others of similar circumstances had it coming. “It” being brutal treatment in the hands of those who now matter-of-factly and violently do in one swoop what modern governance strove to separate from each other: meting out judgment and executing punishment.

Healing and Restorative Truth

The truth that serves the transformative purpose of justice is healing and restorative truth, which is differentiated by the commitment to dignify the victims and their families, restore rule of law,  promote accountability for perpetrators, and introduce changes to prevent recurrence.

It thus combines elements of retributive justice with the restorative kind. It goes beyond upholding one version of truth, and challenges society to be mature in its reckoning of social problems and how to resolve them.

Healing and restorative truth is not just the sum of the other types of truth, but it does mean recognizing that the polyphony of voices in complex settings and situations of violence means there is more than one kind of truth.

Healing and restorative truth cannot be unilaterally dispensed by only one party, even if it is one that holds authority. This kind of truth needs to be surfaced, engaged, and interrogated by parties in dialogue who are seeking to arrive at healing and reconciliation.

Towards Healing and Reconciliation 

Healing and reconciliation can sometimes come across as inconceivable in situations where the victims of abuse are themselves seen to be perpetrators of another abuse.

This difficulty is highlighted in the mainstream narrative being peddled about the drive against illegal drugs. Those engaged in illegal drugs — and no distinction is made whether they are merely users rather than addicts, or if they are engaged in the business side of it, whether they are frontline but minuscule actors, as opposed to the invisible because powerful, and protected big players — are deemed to have already committed crimes and their lives are forfeit in society’s efforts to cleanse its ranks and uphold a sense of security.

Healing looks into not only the hurts and harms that directly arise from an abuse or crime but also attendant ones. Hence, it is not only Kian’s family and his communities who have to experience healing but also the perpetrators, their families and communities. This is ungainly for those who view victimization as a domain that must be jealously guarded because it provides the moral high ground from which one can righteously rail.

The question “who have been victimized” needs to be addressed as part of the process of healing, and not treated as the final arbiter for who gets acknowledged and included. Those who raise examples of people who have been harmed by drug dependents or traffickers as part of their counter-argumentation are not necessarily being cheeky. But if their intention is merely to dilute or divert attention from the discussion at hand, then more’s the pity.

Because in the end it is not a case of “my chosen set of victims is better than yours” but one of ultimately creating societal conditions that will not make victims out of anyone.

The humbling reality is that despite efforts to foster healing, pains and their aftereffects may not immediately go away, or even maybe not at all. But the hope is that the recognition of the disruption, of what got torn apart or lost would be yeast-in-dough-like in its effects–tiny and unassuming, but given time and other factors dramatically transformative and satisfying.

We must also pay attention to what gets restored in healing and restorative truth. If it restores the situation to before the abuse or crime happened, then we would have merely upheld status quo ante and all its inequities, risks and tensions that only guarantee making a cycle of violence.

What we should give premium to are the opportunities for victims and abusers alike to be restored to a wholeness that overcomes the violent break, and for relationships to be given the chances to take hold and work out. Victims are damaged twice if they are doomed to a victim status for life. Perpetrators who genuinely recognize and atone for their wrongful deeds, and seek chances to productively and positively contribute to society need not be condemned to being perpetrators for life.

Among the views about reconciliation are that it is a long-term process, and that it  might come out of healing and restoration initiatives. Some parties have problems with reconciliation because to them it means subordinating interests and differences to achieve harmony. But parties to violence or abuse who reconcile over time build trust, learn to engage and live cooperatively based on respect for and management of diversity of interests, and achieve stability.

Heal, restore and reconcile we must if we do not want Philippine society to spiral into unending cycles of violence, where charges of illegal drugs involvement could be used as ruse to commit crimes against persons and property, or keep communities in a perpetual state of mistrust and division, which only lead to more rounds of retributive actions.

Imagine children growing up in highly volatile and insecurity-causing “an eye for an eye” settings, and check against that our false sense of security whenever we hear of one less drug addict who had reportedly killed/robbed/raped and who had been shot or rubbed out. One less risk to our family’s safety, we say. Until it is one of our family members, friends, or communities who get caught up in the madness, the way Kian did.

For many urban poor communities such as those in Metro Manila and Cebu where the numbers of those killed have been high, they do not even have to imagine; they are already living in that kind of hell.

Are We There Yet?

Is the August 28 meeting of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte with the parents of Kian, Saldy and Lorenza, and his assurance of non-interference and due process a step in the direction of healing and restorative truth?

Perhaps. But it will depend on whether the meeting was only intended to defuse growing public dissatisfaction over the drug campaign, or is one in a series of measures to end the violent nature of the campaign, bring it to a more effective track, and afford justice to those that have been victimized. Genuine healing and restorative truth requires that it not be extended to only the family of one victim but that it be a matter of public policy.

For avid supporters of the President, the meeting was proof that he was accessible and could be relied on to stand for justice, and that the campaign was not unreasonable.

But there is something unsettling seeing pictures of the parents of the slain young man, seeking justice from the leader who, by his pronouncements, had set in motion the series of events which had among its consequences the snuffing out of the life of the 17-year old.  There is a power structure at play in those pictures, and one that does not suggest fairness and impartiality. Does it have to take the highest official of the land to guarantee justice?

On the one hand it could be argued that it is typical of the very involved leader that he is for Pres. Duterte to meet with the de Leons. But on the other hand does it also not suggest that it is only those who have access to him who can hope to have justice?  It is a safe bet that it was citizens’ uproar over Kian’s case that made that meeting imperative.

It is a scary thought, this realization that our sense of rule of law has been so altered that police top brass would go to extremes to justify the behavior of their rank and file, and that it takes the highest elected official of the land to step in and guarantee that there is a fair chance that justice would be served.

And what about the others who had died since the campaign started in earnest after the May 2016 victory of Pres. Duterte? Can they also expect non-interference and due process in the investigation? Even if the count focused only on youth and children victims, any number would be intolerable.

How we deal with the question “anong nangyari kay Kian?” will certainly have bearings on the question “anong mangyayari sa ating lipunan? Let healing and restorative truth be one of the ways with which we can answer those questions.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindNews. Mags Z. Maglana is a Mindanawon who has worked in various capacities over the past 30 years for peace, good governance, sustainable development, and the promotion of human rights. Please email feedback to