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Friday, June 18, 2010

40 Years Later, Combing Cambodia for Missing Friends

Tim Page, a photographer, during the latest of many fruitless trips to find the remain of his friend Sean Flynn who disappeared during the vietnam war.

By Seth Mydans

PKHAR DOUNG, Cambodia — “Let’s rock and roll,” said Tim Page, once one of the wild and daring young photographers of the Vietnam War, strapping himself into the front seat of a four wheel drive van.

“Like Flynn and Stone, three intrepid journalists left Phnom Penh on a hot morning headed for Kampong Cham,” he said, narrating his departure recently with two colleagues.

He settled back for the long ride, past the town of Skun, known for its fried spiders, past hypnotic rows of rubber trees, out to this dusty village near the Mekong River where he believed the bones of two missing war photographers, Sean Flynn and Dana Stone, were buried.

It was not an unusual journey for Mr. Page. Now 66, he has been on this hunt for years, determined to find answers and to come to terms with the war that has dominated his life.

Just 40 years ago, the missing men had headed down an empty road with their cameras in search of Khmer Rouge guerrillas. They were never heard from again.

Their fate has become one of the enduring mysteries of the war, two young journalists — like movie adventurers — riding their motorbikes into no-man’s-land and losing a bet against fate.

Mr. Flynn, the dashing and glamorous son of the film star Errol Flynn, had in fact briefly been an actor, and he brought an aura with him to Vietnam that gave his disappearance at the age of 28 a mythic quality.

“Sean Flynn could look more incredibly beautiful than even his father, Errol, had 30 years before as Captain Blood,” wrote Michael Herr in his classic book about the war, “Dispatches.”

“But sometimes he looked more like Artaud coming out of some heavy heart-of-darkness trip, overloaded on the information, the input!”

Mr. Page had shared some of those journeys into darkness, and his visit to Pkhar Doung was the latest of many forays in what he calls “a 25-year madness” in search of the bones of the man he calls his brother.

Weeks earlier two bounty hunters had made a false claim to have found them, reviving interest in the disappearance and spurring American investigators to step up the search for the missing journalists.

“I don’t like the idea of his spirit out there tormented,” Mr. Page said, a wandering ghost that could only find rest, as many in Asia believe, after proper funeral rites. “There’s something spooky about being M.I.A.”

Mr. Page is also seeking a measure of peace for his own soul, scarred like his body from the traumas of combat, from nearly fatal wounds and the loss of friends, trying to put together what he calls “an enormous jigsaw puzzle, bits of sky, bits of earth.”

“I don’t think anybody who goes through anything like war ever comes out intact,” he said. “I suppose the closure of Sean’s fate also has to do with closure of the whole war experience.”

Theirs was an intimacy forged by shared danger and by what Mr. Page calls the magnetic pull of two only sons searching for a bond.

“We could have been brothers, and felt as though we were,” Mr. Page wrote in a memoir, “Derailed in Uncle Ho’s Victory Garden.” “We would sit for hours in the same room, hardly speaking yet in total communication, a vibration as intimate as between lovers.”

For Mr. Page a lonely intimacy has continued, and he hears what seems to be the voice of his friend from time to time, the voice of a tormented spirit.

“We have conversations in strange moments, and often enough to remind me of the presence of his spirit,” Mr. Page said on his recent drive to Pkhar Doung. “It’s there but not there, and you’re aware that there’s something somehow lurking, just out of reach.”

He said that as he drives past the rubber trees, whose rapid regular repeated rows create the illusion of some ghostly shifting world in the distance, he often hears his friend’s voice, “What are you doing, man? What are you doing, boy? What are you doing, mate?”

Mr. Flynn’s lost bones and wandering soul are not alone in Cambodia, where as many as a quarter of the population died in the late 1970s during the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge. Many of their remains, like those of Mr. Flynn, are still unidentified in killing fields around the country.

Cambodia was a particularly dangerous place for foreign journalists during five years of war before the Khmer Rouge victory in 1975. At least 37 died or disappeared, including 15, along with Mr. Flynn, in a six-week period in April 1970.

After pursuing various theories and false trails, Mr. Page said he now believes that Mr. Flynn survived for a year after his disappearance and may have been killed by lethal injection at a field hospital here. On a visit last year, Mr. Page recovered some medical vials and turned them over for analysis to the American military office in Hawaii that seeks to recover the remains of missing soldiers.

This new visit to Pkhar Doung did little to solve the mystery. Since the bounty hunters had ravaged the site with a backhoe, the American military office, known by its acronym as JPAC, had sealed it off. Mr. Page was turned away by the local police.

In the future, he said, he planned to talk with nearby villagers who might have some memory of captive foreigners long ago and what became of them.

Even if he never does succeed, Mr. Page said his search had helped him honor both Mr. Flynn and other journalists who died or disappeared in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

His pursuit has inspired a documentary, a new memorial to dead and missing journalists in Phnom Penh, journalism courses for local reporters and most significantly a book called “Requiem,” which includes the work of 135 photographers from all sides who died covering Indochina’s decades of war.

Mr. Page, who grew up in Britain, taught himself photography and covered the war as a freelancer from 1965 to 1969, sending pictures to major American and French publications including Time and Life, Look and Paris-Match.

He became known for his vivid combat pictures and also for the risks he took and the wounds he survived. At the time Mr. Flynn disappeared Mr. Page had suffered his most severe injuries, from a mine explosion that sent shrapnel into his brain and body.

He was pronounced dead on arrival at a hospital, he said, but surgeons revived him for a long and painful recovery. The thin borderline between life and death still seems to draw him.

“At the end of the day, the mysticism of it — living, not living — becomes a mystery,” he said, “and I don’t think we are ever privileged except on death’s doorstep to actually understand it.”

He hovers close, though, pouring his energies into his search for the unmarked grave of his friend, then sometimes finding comfort in the quiet of a cemetery.

“It’s always peaceful in a cemetery,” he said. “Everyone there has found rest. All the tribulations of life are over, and you return to the peace of nothingness".
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Advisor to Cambodia's PM apologizes for making statue

An advisor to Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen has apologized for making a statue without permission.

In a letter made available to the media on Friday, Om Yintieng, advisor to Prime Minister Hun Sen said he had made a statue of the Prime Minister in a way to express his respect and gratitude, but without knowledge or consent from him.

He thus made a public apology and asked for forgiveness from the premier.

Om Yintien made the apology soon after the Cabinet of Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a statement on Thursday saying a number of places have been displayed with statues of the country's leaders or certain artists make sculpture or reproduction in objects of the leaders for decoration at homes or as souvenirs.

The statement said the gesture has affected the country's tradition and culture which does not allow any statue or sculpture of the leaders be displayed while they are still alive.

In the letter of apology, Om Yintieng did not mention the details of Hun Sen's statue that he had built and where exactly it will be displayed, but local media has reported Friday saying the premier's statue was designed for display inside the premise of government's anti-corruption unit, where is chaired by Om Yintieng.

The statue which was seen Thursday by reporters under the wraps was already removed from the site on Friday.

Source: Xinhua
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Exhibition Celebrates Khmer Bronze Casters, With Hope for Action

While museum-goers in Washington enjoy a new display of ancient Cambodian bronzes on loan from the National Museum of Cambodia, a US scholar says artifacts smuggled out of the country in the past should be returned home.

“All people who study Cambodia and all people who visit Cambodia know how important it is that monuments in Cambodia remain as intact as possible,” Hiram Woodward, a emeritus curator of Asian art, told VOA Khmer after his lecture and a tour of the “Gods of Angkor” exhibit Saturday.

“There are now treaties concerning bringing stone sculptures into the United States,” he said, “and one hopes that some of the objects that have been removed from Cambodia in past years will eventually make their way back to Cambodia.”

Both countries signed an agreement in 2003 banning the illegal import of Cambodian artifacts to the US.

Ork Sophon, director general of the Ministry of Culture, told VOA Khmer Monday that illegal smuggling has decreased as a result, while the US has confiscated and returned a number of antiquities.

However, some artifacts that were purchased before the 2003 agreement remain in the US, and Cambodia is trying to convince collectors to voluntarily return them, Ork Sophon said.

“We have so far directly contacted US private collectors who are now getting old and have no children to take care of the items [and asked them] to return them to us,” he said.

Cambodian officials hope the “Gods of Angkor” exhibit, which is currently on display at the Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington in collaboration with Cambodia’s National Museum, will raise artifact awareness and inspire more participation in the fight against smuggling.
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