Unesco Veteran Reflects on Career of Int’l Service

Teruo Jinnai, who retired last week after 14 years of working for UN agencies in Phnom Penh, came close to being sent to a country with one of the coldest climates on the planet instead of Cambodia.

In 1996, Mr Jinnai had been managing five refugee camps along the Rwandan-Tanzanian border as a UN volunteer when he started receiving satellite phone calls from UN De­velopment Program officials in Geneva.

Though the Khmer Rouge were waging war in some parts of the country, Cambodia had regained some stability following the 1993 elections and UNDP was eager to offer substantial assistance to step up the country’s development, Mr Jin­nai explained on Wednesday.

“I wasn’t sure whether I would accept a post in Cambodia,” he said, explaining that he believed in the work he was doing in the camps. “And then, Tokyo UNDP calls me and says, ‘Mr Jinnai, you go to Mongolia,’” where the temperature can drop to minus 30 degrees Cel­sius on winter nights.

“I told Geneva and Tokyo, ‘I’m ready to go anywhere, Cambodia or Mongolia…. So why don’t you two offices talk and make a decision,’” he recalled telling them.

Mr Jinnai ended up in Cambodia, arriving as a UN volunteer in May 1996, and stepping down on Nov 30 as the head of office for Unesco, which he had joined in 1998.

Neither his schooling nor his private sector career had prepared him for the work he did in the country.

Born in Japan in November 1946, Mr Jinnai relocated to Canada at 22 and studied Indo-European comparative linguistics in Montreal and in Salzburg, Austria.

“All that means is that I learned dead languages,” he said with a grin.

Then for more than 15 years Mr Jinnai worked for a major Japanese conglomerate Itochu Corp. He was based in the countries of the Maghrib, especially Algeria, for a decade, and then in Paris.

Because of his professional background, the UNDP office in Geneva had assumed that he was a business expert while in fact he had served as a negotiator and coordinated exterior relations for the company, he said.

After he explained this, UNDP still wanted him in Cambodia. He was assigned as administrative and financial adviser to Phnom Penh’s Funcinpec governor Chhim Saek Leng and CPP first vice governor Chea Sophara in May 1996.

Since the 1993 election, the CPP and Funcinpec had been in a government of national unity. But, Mr Jinnai said, “a coalition doesn’t mean you work together. So they gave me two offices.” He divided his time between the two men.

The tense relationship between the two parties would lead to armed confrontation in July 1997 and was a violent beginning to Funcinpec’s long demise.

Mr Jinnai remained at the municipality for two years. As most administrative procedures and services were yet to be put in place, his advice was a matter of suggesting common sense approaches such as installing street lights to make residents less afraid of going out at night and to deter the hordes of street bandits, he said.

In mid-1998, the position of culture program specialist at the Unesco office in Phnom Penh became temporarily vacant and he was asked to fill in for 11 months. He pointed out that he had never worked in cultural affairs but he was still offered the position.

Mr Jinnai soon became fascinated by the work and, when asked to take over the position in 1999, he was happy to accept.

“I started developing an interest in intangible culture heritage,” Mr Jinnai said.

At the time, there were no regular classical or traditional dance performances offered in Phnom Penh.

So he went about supporting regular Cambodian dance performances, working with Fred Frumberg, then a UN volunteer who would later launch the NGO Amrita Performing Arts, and Suon Bun Rith, a young administrator he had hired because “he was the best,” Mr Jinnai said.

Paying the artists $3 per performance and charging entrance fees of 1,000 riel for Cambodians, or about $0.25, and 3,000 riel for foreigners, his team was able to offer two performances per week throughout 1999, he said.

His fondest memories include when Unesco proclaimed Cambodia’s classical dance and the large shadow puppet theater Lakhaon Sbaek Thom as “Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” in 2003 and 2005 respectively, he said.

But what Mr Jinnai mentioned first when asked about the highlights of his tenure was the success of the Cambodian government in putting the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple on the World Heritage List in 2008, with the assistance of Unesco.

What made Mr Jinnai decide to leave a large Japanese company for the UN in 1995 was realizing that he was probably paid three times more than the people he met in Algeria, whose living conditions had hardly improved over a century.

But what prompted him to remain with the UN was a visit he made with his Tutsi assistant to a Tutsi village in Rwanda in 1996: There he saw home after home filled with skeletons still covered with their clothes as no one had returned, or perhaps no one had been left to return to bury them after the 1994 genocide that claimed up to a million lives.

In the refugee camps he was managing, officers of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees were constantly getting into trouble for offering assistance to those that local governments did not want helped.

And, Mr Jinnai said, this is when he realized what humanitarian aid and the UN were all about.


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