F UNCINPEC Secretary-General Prince Norodom Sirivudh has vowed to do what he can to see outcast MP Sam Rainsy returned to the party fold.
"I see the chance for Sam Rainsy to come back," Sirivudh said this week. "As Secretary-General I will always want to open the door for this brilliant element of Funcinpec."
In the wake of Rainsy's June 22 expulsion from the National Assembly and earlier sacking from Funcinpec, Sirivudh is moving to call a full congress of party members "as soon as I can".
The congress would give "the chance for real democratic debate" on the Rainsy affair and the party's future.
Sirivudh was planning a pre-congress meeting of more than 100 party officials - from provincial, district and sub-district levels - for tomorrow, July 1.
Such meetings, and a congress, should produce clear signs of how party officials and rank-and-file members have greeted Rainsy's ousting.
Sirivudh himself is in no doubt - Funcinpec has "lost credit" in the eyes of many party faithful and other Cambodians, he said.
But he would not be drawn on whether moves to allow Rainsy to return to Funcinpec - and perhaps the National Assembly - could be expected at a party congress.
Asked whether Rainsy might prefer to start a new party, Sirivudh said: "It's his right to do that. It's up to his conscience.
"But he should not forget his friends and long-term colleagues, perhaps they will change themselves after the party congress.
"It seems to me that we must calm down the situation. We are disappointed, but we must preserve our energies and that goes for my friend too," he said of Rainsy.
"I advise my friend not to try to break the wall. I ask him not to change our consciences, but that technically, politically, we must calm down.
"It's a matter of timing. To do the right thing we must protect our energy."
He said he would also "try to calm down" the president of Funcinpec, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the instigator of Rainsy's expulsion.
Sirivudh hoped relations between Rainsy and Prince Ranariddh could be mended.
"Prince Ranariddh has told me personally that after the storm, maybe there will be sunshine, so who knows? In politics, I always think of evolution."
It was clearly better to get Rainsy back in Funcinpec before the 1998 elections, because "he is popular - that is fact".
The party needed to debate "who are we?" and begin preparations for 1998.
Sirivudh - who has labeled Rainsy's eviction from Funcinpec as "irregular" and against party rules - said he would not challenge it on legal grounds.
"You can talk about regulations, procedures, but it's politics too. Now, I can do nothing."
But he pledged not to allow such a case to happen again, and to fight any unfair disciplinary action against Funcinpec officials.
The Post reported in May that Funcinpec's steering committee, which purportedly made the decision to sack Rainsy, was considering dismissing some party provincial governors.
"As Secretary-General, I ask the steering committee to move slowly and carefully," said Sirivudh.
"There must be democratic debate. People must have the chance to answer any allegations, and their answers must be considered."
Rainsy, meanwhile, has given no indication of his future other than to say he will consider himself a MP until the 1998 elections.
He left for a trip to France and Japan soon after he was officially stripped of his MP's position on June 22.
Earlier, he said his expulsion left him both sad and happy - sad that MPs could no longer express their opinions, but happy because "to the whole world, this is the proof that this institution, this government, is losing its legitimacy".
His view appeared to win backing from several countries with heavy aid commitments to Cambodia.
The United States Government issued a statement on June 23 saying it was "disappointed" at Rainsy's expulsion.
It expressed concern the case would "sully Cambodia's international image with regard to respect for rule of law, due process and open political debate".
The statement said it was now "more important than ever" that freedom of expression in Cambodia was protected, as well as the "independence of the legislature and the rights of legislators".
Australia also protested Rainsy's expulsion, with Foreign Minister Gareth Evans questioning whether the move was done legally and in a "fully transparent manner".
"It is not clear that this occurred in this case," he said.
The chairman of the British House of Lords' human rights group, Lord Eric Avebury, sent a strongly-worded letter to National Assembly Chairman Chea Sim.
Avebury expressed astonishment at Rainsy's expulsion, referring to an earlier pledge of support by Chea Sim for democracy, human rights and international norms.
"I would respectfully suggest that you cannot honorably remain as Chairman of the National Assembly, when it has taken a decision so flagrantly in contravention of your firm promise to the Cambodian people and the whole international community," Avebury wrote.
"Many people are seeing this expulsion as a death blow to democracy in Cambodia... There is very little time in which to reverse this disastrous move and restore Mr Rainsy to his elected post."
In Cambodia, criticism of the expulsion - and concern for the independence of the National Assembly - continues.
Ahmad Yahya - one of the few Funcinpec MPs to publicly support Rainsy - refused to recognize Rainsy's expulsion.
He said it was not in line with the constitution, the UN electoral law or the National Assembly's internal rules.
"I still recognize Sam Rainsy as a Member of Parliament until 1998...but he himself has to be careful. If he uses that title, the government can accuse him [of misrepresentation] and put him in jail."
Yahya - and Prince Sirivudh - have disputed that they signed a petition in support of Rainsy's expulsion presented to the National Assembly's permanent standing committee three days earlier.
Yahya said the "petition" was in fact a list of attendees at a Funcinpec meeting called by Prince Ranariddh to discuss Rainsy.
Assembly vice-chairman and committee member Son Soubert expressed concern that Prince Ranariddh had imposed his will on the assembly.
"This is a regression because the National Assembly seems to be in the rubber-stamp situation, he said.
"There should be a balance between the National Assembly and the government. I think they tried to do that, but with this case it's gone back to square one."
Of Rainsy's dismissal, Soubert said: "I'm not sure this is legal."
However, assembly chairman Chea Sim issued a statement on the day of Rainsy's expulsion defending its legality.
He said Cambodia's proportional representation system meant MPs were elected to represent political parties.
Sim said he could not avoid acting to remove Rainsy from the assembly after Funcinpec notified him that the MP had lost his membership of that party.
He said Rainsy could appeal his expulsion to Cambodia's Constitutional Council - yet to be formed after months of delay - "when this council is established".
In response to criticism from some international quarters, Sim said: "The execution of the law in force does not mean in any way the abandonment of the principles of liberal democracy and respect for human rights."
On the contrary, it was a "consolidation" of the principle of establishing the rule of law in Cambodia, he said.