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Sunday, May 02, 2010

Vietnam's press gang at war over Flynn `find'

WILDLY handsome and extravagantly glamorous, Sean Flynn rode into the ranks of the missing astride a motorbike. It was Cambodia, 1970, and he was on the hunt for news. With his companion Dana Stone, Flynn was probably captured and killed by the Khmer Rouge, but their remains have never been found, despite intensive searches over the years.
The son of Errol Flynn was a noted combat photographer, and his thirst was for real adventure, rather than the Hollywood variety.

In the weeks just before an Old Hacks' reunion of Vietnam war correspondents in Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City, news emerged that Flynn's remains might have been found by a young Australian, Dave MacMillan, and his associates, including a Briton, Keith Rotheram, the owner of a guesthouse in Sihanoukville, southern Cambodia.

According to rumours seeping through the internet in recent weeks, and partly according to MacMillan himself, the bones thought to be Flynn's had been dug up with a mechanical digger and kept for some time before being handed to the US authorities. The dig had been filmed, and it seems that a lucrative documentary was in the offing.

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Rotheram has reportedly talked about the story going to "the highest bidder".

MacMillan said he had permission from Flynn's half-sister, Rory Flynn, to look for the remains, but members of the Old Hacks were upset by what they saw as the hasty and unscientific handling of their old friend's bones. Flynn was one of their own. He had been best man at Carl Robinson's wedding and Robinson, who covered the Vietnam War for Associated Press, had organised the Old Hacks reunion.

Flynn had shared a house with combat photographer Tim Page and the Australian Vietnam War correspondent Martin Stuart-Fox. Both were in Phnom Penh for the Old Hacks reunion, which last week moved to Ho Chi Minh City. And there, at one of the Old Hacks events, MacMillan arrived to "pay his respects", pointedly ignoring the cool reception he had received at an Old Hacks event in Phnom Penh the week before. Several people in Ho Chi Minh City told him he was not welcome, but he did not leave immediately.

Page says he was blunt with MacMillan: "I said, `Mate, you've got no respect for the dead'."

Page had worked with MacMillan for a while in the past, in a search for Flynn's remains, largely because he thought the young Australian had good connections in Vietnam.

Page is positive the answer to Flynn's disappearance lies somewhere in dusty archives in Hanoi. The North Vietnamese had a lot of influence in Cambodia in the early 1970s; most Khmer Rouge cadres had a Vietnamese adviser.

At the Old Hacks reunion in Ho Chi Minh City last week, Page was still upset. "The mystery becomes more of a Tantric, 3000-piece jigsaw puzzle," he says, adding that he had been in communication with MacMillan after the so-called discovery.

He ordered him to hand the remains over to the US military body specifically set up to locate the war dead: the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC). It seems that MacMillan did finally hand some remains over and, after the publicity following the find, JPAC instituted its own search at the site, finding a few more small pieces of bone.

MacMillan declined to comment for this article, other than to say: "I can't comment, sorry. Thanking you so kindly for your time . . . all questions should be forwarded to Rory Flynn, who I have copied on this email."

Employed by Dogma, which has an urban guerilla fashion outlet in Ho Chi Minh City, the Queenslander apparently lives in Vietnam.

Meanwhile, JPAC's testing seems to have largely ruled out the possibility the remains, which apparently consist of a skull and some small bones, are Flynn's. "The remains are badly fragmented due to the manner in which they were recovered," a spokesman for the US embassy in Phnom Penh says. "Limited analysis suggests that they may be indigenous." Further testing, he adds, is under way.

MacMillan, whose Facebook site has in the past featured a photo of him with a Cambodian scarf wrapped around his head, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, and sporting a Flynn-like moustache, has objected in a letter to a US newspaper to some of the coverage of his find. He says no payment was asked for the remains; he says Page is annoyed because his own documentary about his search for Flynn's remains was jeopardised; he says the excavator was carefully used and he and his associates had the consent of various Cambodian authorities and JPAC knew of their work. He denies they were "amateur bone hunters".

Page says MacMillan's efforts have at least stirred up interest in the journalists who were lost in Cambodia. Thirty-seven foreign and Cambodian journalists, photographers and cameramen were killed or declared missing in Cambodia between April 1970 and April 1975. One was an Australian, photographer Alan Hirons, 24. He had been in Cambodia a week or so when he was taken by the Khmer Rouge. His remains have not been found.

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