LONG BEACH - A planned appearance by Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Sok An at next year's Cambodian New Year Parade in Long Beach has stirred controversy and is threatening to open old wounds in the Cambodian community.

In his home country, Sok An is the right-hand man of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People's Party. Earlier this month, he accepted an invitation to attend next year's New Year celebration from a delegation from Long Beach visiting Phnom Penh. The contingent included representatives of several ethnic and civic groups including Cambodia Town Inc., Long Beach Sister Cities, the Cambodian Coordinating Council and the Cambodia New Year Parade.

News of Sok An's planned attendance has brought emotional response from members of the Cambodian community in Long Beach who oppose the Hun Sen government.

In an effort to stop the visit, a petition has been launched protesting the deputy prime minister's appearance.

Anthony Ly, editor of the Angkor Borei News, which will print copies of the petition in its Dec. 31 editions, says he hopes to meet with Mayor Bob Foster in January to present the signatures.

There was confusion about whether Foster formally invited Sok An to attend the parade.

Evan Braude, an attorney and former Long Beach city councilman who was part of the delegation, said that wasn't the case.

Braude said he had been asked by Foster to extend greetings in general to groups the delegation met. Foster had planned to go on the trip, but had to bow out because of an eye infection.

"There was no specific invitation to a specific person," Braude said. "It was just a general invitation to anyone who wanted to attend. That's the main thrust."

Braude added that formal invitations to visiting heads of state and their representatives are handled by the federal government, and the visit by the Long Beach delegation wasn't even an official city visit.

However, Richer San, a Long Beach delegate, confirmed that an invitation was made, formal or not, and Sok An accepted.

He added that if Sok An decides to join the parade, he will be provided with a car to ride in and banners identifying him.

Braude noted that in past years other political figures have been part of the parade, including Pok Than, a former minister of education in Cambodia with ties to Long Beach.

Opponents say bringing someone of Sok An's stature, however, ups the ante.

Ly, who said he already has 20 to 30 signatures, called Sok An "the most corrupt man in Hun Sen's government."

He added that local residents oppose the deputy prime minister's involvement because of the Cambodian government's long history of human rights violations, corruption and a laundry list of other misdeeds.

As an example, Ly pointed to a recent visit by United Nations human rights envoy Yash Ghai. After Ghai's contentious 10-day fact-finding mission, the BBC reported the envoy said, "Cambodia's government was not committed to human rights, and power had been too centralised (sic) around `one individual,"' referring to Hun Sen.

The BBC reported that Hun Sen responded by calling Ghai "deranged."

San says Ly was an opponent of the New Year Parade since its inception. While he supported Ly's right to hold a different opinion, he said Cambodian Americans need to put homeland politics aside.

Although he sought to remain somewhat neutral and removed from the controversy, Cambodian activist Paline Soth said many residents see Sok An as representing an oppressive regime and will see his appearance as extending the reach and influence into Long Beach.

"They believe they fled the country to leave an oppressive government and be independent and be subject to the law and order of Long Beach," Soth said.

About his own feelings, Soth says he believes it is OK for Cambodians to attend the parade as private citizens, but adds, "I would be critical of anyone using the parade for their own agenda."

Braude, who hopes to diffuse any tension, said, "We're not here to play politics, right or wrong."

However, homeland politics and old hurts and alliances still simmer just below the surface in Long Beach's Cambodian community.

This was never more evident than in 2005, when Cambodians divided sharply and bitterly over the inaugural New Year Parade. Initially scheduled for April 17, the date Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge rose to power and unleashed the Killing Fields reign of terror that left about 1.7 million Cambodians dead, the parade issue gashed the community along old party lines.

Although Hun Sen and his Cambodian People's Party have been democratically elected in recent years, since the coup he led in 1997, the prime minister is still a lightning rod of dissent stateside.

Soth is among those who fear that an appearance by Hun Sen's top aide could be disastrous.

"There's a silent majority out there watching," Soth said, "and at the snap of a finger, this is an issue that could ignite them."