Staff writer

Chea Sim, head of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and Second Prime Minister Hun Sen’s party archrival, will visit Tokyo as early as September under the Foreign Ministry’s Opinion Leaders Invitation Program, ministry sources said Wednesday.

The sources said that Chea Sim, who also serves as head of the Southeast Asian country’s parliament, recently accepted the Japanese invitation. Although the invitation said Japan would welcome Chea Sim as soon as possible, specific dates for the trip have yet to be set.

The Opinion Leaders Invitation Program annually accepts several dozen foreign visitors considered to have a strong influence on the public opinion of their countries. Visitors usually stay in Japan for about 10 days and meet with Japanese leaders and experts to deepen their understanding of Japan and Japanese people.

Among foreigners invited under the program are leaders of political parties, parliamentary members, heads of local governments, business leaders, labor union leaders and media executives.

One Foreign Ministry source said the decision to invite Chea Sim was made as part of efforts to open or strengthen dialogue with as many Cambodian political leaders as possible, including critics of Hun Sen, the country’s military-backed strongman.

Another ministry source acknowledged, however, that Tokyo’s invitation of Chea Sim, who has been locked in a bitter power struggle with Hun Sen within the Cambodian People’s Party, is partly intended as “insurance” against a possible ousting of Hun Sen from power in the future. Hun Sen holds the title of deputy head of the Cambodian People’s Party.

Hun Sen has been the target of harsh international criticism since he ousted Prince Norodom Ranariddh, his partner in an uneasy ruling coalition, from the post of first prime minister in a bloody coup on July 6, 1997.

Cambodians will go to the polls on July 26 to elect a new 122-seat parliament. Hun Sen apparently wants to gain legitimacy for his regime through the elections, while foreign critics as well as Cambodian opponents of the second premier have voiced strong doubts that the elections will be held freely and fairly, as demanded by the international community.

Yukio Imagawa, a former Japanese ambassador to Phnom Penh, said in a recent interview that it is possible that the Cambodian People’s Party will break up sometime in the future because of intraparty fighting between two factions — one led by Hun Sen and the other by Chea Sim — even if the party wins the July 26 elections, as widely expected.

Imagawa pointed out that Hun Sen’s faction has the military and the central government under its tight control, while Chea Sim’s faction has a strong grip on police and local governments.

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