Protesters embrace while standing on the corner of a street in Quan Doan 4, Binh Duong province, near Song Than 2 Industrial Park in Vietnam, Wednesday. Pic: AP.

Resource exploitation from foreign investors is something Cambodia is all too familiar with, but Cambodian labor leaders urge restraint in the face of the massive and unprecedented destruction of foreign owned factories in Vietnam.  By Thursday this week, scores of factories in southern Vietnam had been set fire to in a series of riots protesting China’s placement of an oil rig in the disputed territory of the South China Sea claimed by Vietnam.  Taiwanese factories, bearing no relation to the PRC, experienced the heaviest losses from vandalism and South Korean factories were not spared.  One province alone reported over 400 companies had been damaged.

Tola Moeun, head of the labor program at Community Legal and Education Centre (CLEC), says while local unions understand the anger of Vietnamese protestors regarding China’s actions in the South China Sea, “We do not support the burning of Chinese owned factories. They should express their sentiment in a peaceful way.”  CLEC, a national NGO, advocates for labor rights on the behalf of Cambodians.

A reported 21 people were killed in Vietnam’s riots, 16 thought to be Chinese and five Vietnamese workers, which had spread from urban factory areas to rural provinces.  Some 100 people are said to be hospitalized, with most described as Chinese.

Chinese nationals have been fleeing across the Bavet International border at Svay Rieng province to Cambodia.  A reported 600 Chinese nationals had crossed the border by land on Wednesday.

Vietnam, like Cambodia, has experienced an influx of foreign investment into its textile industry from factory owners from South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and China.  Vietnamese workers have also struggled to live on meager wages which have not kept pace with inflation. Labor researchers say, though largely unreported, Vietnam experiences “wild cat” strikes for salary increases.  And now, with the anticipated signing of the Trans Pacific Partnership, China increased its investment into Vietnam’s garment industry and real estate, up to US$2.3 billion in 2013, compared to the US$345 million invested in 2012, which  was greeted with tension, according to Vietnamese media, because it could benefit Chinese investors more than domestic ones.

“The significant inflow of Chinese investment in the Vietnam economy has raised an alarm in the minds of many related to an over dependence on Chinese investment and influence, leading some to advocate placing limits on the investment,” said a recent report.

Real estate investment into Vietnam has been the second biggest draw of Chinese investment, supported by Vietnam’s growth as a manufacturing hub.  Land concessions to developers has been a point of contention in Vietnam with citizens viewing land administration as being the second most corrupt, according to a report by the Economist.

“We, too, are also angry with Chinese investment that is destroying our natural resources,” Tola explains. In addition to its labor advocacy, CLEC works to protect natural resources.

Chinese investors have also been very active in Cambodia and are backing controversial projects, such as the contested Lower Sesan II Hydropower project planned for Stung Treng province in northern Cambodia supported by Hydrolancang International Energy and Hounan Group of China.  The project had been backed by Vietnam until the country pulled out in the face of stiff local resistance.  The project is slated to continue, despite an outcry from thousands of affected villagers.  The much contested proposed hydropower project in Koh Kong, Cambodia, home to many threatened species, is backed by Chinese Sinohydro Resources Ltd.  Land grabs and water grabs have spurred a seemingly endless migration of rural residents to Phnom Penh, supplying factories with cheap labor.

“We call for China to stop exploiting other countries natural resources,” added Tola.

However, when it comes to land concessions, Vietnamese investors also have caused grief to Cambodians.

LICADHO reported over 2 million hectares of economic land concessions had been granted to foreign and domestic investors, primarily Vietnamese and Chinese.  The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries report a smaller figure granted to foreign investors: 620,987 hectares of land, half of a total 1.2 million hectares, which is contested by rights groups as inaccurate.  According to the ministry, 82 foreign companies were awarded land concessions, 34 of which are Vietnamese (with 253,623 hectares granted) and 25 of which are Chinese ( with 203,960 hectares granted), which shows Vietnamese investors are leading in the concessions.

Labor and land rights activists in Cambodia have worked long and hard to channel protestors’ frustration into peaceful demonstrations and resistance, rather than act out in violence.  Vandalism and violence broke out against ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia after the government, perceived by the opposition party as backed by Hanoi, used gunfire to quash garment factory strikes in early January.

Of the 400 garment factories listed by the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia,  about a quarter are owned by Chinese investors,  another quarter owned by Taiwanese investors and the remaining factories owned by investors from Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore, and Malaysia.

Hundreds of Chinese nationals are reported to be staying at hotels and guesthouses in the Kingdom by the border and the capital, as they escape Vietnam’s deadly riots.