Tue, 12/06/2011 - 09:07

Thái Thị Ngọc Dư, Nguyễn Thị Nhận, Lê Hoàng Anh Thư

(Gender and Society Research Center)

Abstract

The aim of this research project was to collect testimonies from the living Mothers of Martyrs who survived two wars while fighting in Vietnam against France and America. Some of them were later designated as Heroic Vietnamese Mothers by the State. The majority of them are old now and in deteriorating health. The paper resulting from the project first examines Vietnamese and foreign literature that portrays the roles of Vietnamese women in these two wars, their quiet sacrifices, and the terrible pain young mothers experienced because their husbands and children died for their country’s independence. Their suffering endured during the post-war period continues even today. Secondly, this paper discusses the outcome of interviews with sixteen Heroic Vietnamese Mothers currently living in Ho Chi Minh City who revealed their unceasing grief at the death of their loved ones; such memories are obviously still deeply engrained in their minds despite the passing of time. Though they are living in loneliness today, they accept their situation considering it a fact of war, and that their sacrifice was needed to obtain national independence. They themselves actively participated in the different war activities as resistance fighters, and a number of them were imprisoned by the enemies. They have very fond memories and are intensely proud of the past when they joined the revolution and faced hardships and life-threatening danger. Having suffered so much pain and adversity during the wars, these women characteristically love peace with all their mind and heart.

Introduction

A Review of the Literature

For some the war has never ended

Vietnam has been without war for more than 30 years. Young generations born during this time of peace only know about wars through documentaries, movies, television dramas, history lessons, exhibitions of photos and artifacts in museums or through the occasional narratives of their grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts. However, living right in the heart of this peaceful country are several living witnesses who experienced the brutal wars fought against France and America that once existed in Vietnam not too long ago. These witnesses are the Mothers-of-War Martyrs or former members of the volunteer youth corps, war veterans or the victims of agent orange and their relatives who are still nursing their dioxin-contaminated children born during or even long after the war. It seems to these people that the wars never ended. The image of war is refreshed repeatedly in their minds by facing the remnants of war in their quotidian lives, or suffering every day from the disabilities that torture them or their loved ones. They are reminded of the wars by the sickness, losses and persisting painful memories of their dead husbands and children or their unrequited yearnings for having a family of their own. As Sonya Schoenberger, an American high-school student, wrote in her article in the Tuoi Tre Newspaper (4/25/2011) about her first visit to the War Remnants Museum in Hanoi: “For some, the war never ends.”

In all wars, not only those restricted to Vietnam, the image of women always incurs feelings of pity in the observers. It is probable that wars are perceived by most people as being exclusively the domain of men, hence the position of women during wartime should be limited to the roles of a soldier’s wife, a mother, a lover or a loved one. However, the fact of the matter is that the number of women who engaged in wars, for example in Vietnam, is remarkable. According to a book entitled “Even the Women Must Fight” (1998) by Karen Gottschang Turner and Phan Thanh Hao, the number of women who joined the army in Northern Vietnam during the war against America was 1.5 million. The number of youths who joined the Volunteer Youth Corps in the North during the period from 1965 to 1975 was 170,000 and 70%-80% of them were women. This number does not include the approximately 1 million women who joined guerrilla and civilian troups in their own localities. Seventy percent of the heavy work performed in provinces and cities in the North, including bridge-and-road repair, was done by women. From 170,000 to 180,000 of the women who were youth volunteers are still alive. The number of women who became widows or were unable to get married due to the wars is 1.4 million (Turner and Phan Thanh Hao 1998).

The title “Heroic Vietnamese Mothers” (“Bà mẹ Việt Nam Anh hùng”) is an honorable title granted by the government of Vietnam to Vietnamese women who made tremendous contributions and sacrifices while making it a national career to fight for independence and to protect the country or in being involved in other international affairs. This title granted by the government was passed into law effective August 29, 1994. According to Article 2 of this law, the women who qualified for this honored title had to meet the requirements set by the Information Gate website on Awards and Contests: having had two soldier sons or a husband killed in the war or the woman herself was a martyr; having 2 sons, both of whom were martyrs, or having only one son who was a martyr; having more than 3 sons who were martyrs; or having one son who was a martyr, or both she and her husband were martyrs.

Shortly after the law was passed the Government awarded this honorable title to 44,253 women between December 1994 to the end of the year 2001, of whom 15,033 were from the North, and 29,220 were from the South. In 2003 a total of 1,899 Mothers-of-Martyrs were awarded in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) alone, however, only 631 of them were still alive at that time; 1,192 mothers had passed away and 76 had died during the war. In 1997 the Communist Party, People’s Committee, People’s Council, and Fatherland Front of HCMC honored 1,787 Vietnamese Heroic Mothers in the project titled “Vietnamese Heroic Mothers of HCMC” (Women’s Union of HCMC).

These remarkable figures reveal to us how actively women participated in the war. Therefore, more research on the war experiences of Vietnamese women is very necessary and pressing so that the life experiences and stories of former generations, especially those of women, will not be lost.

The image of women as war victims

Several studies were conducted in Vietnam and other countries that researched the topic of women and war. An example of the results edited by Nicole Ann Dombrowski appear in the volume “Women and War in the Twentieth Century: Enlisted with or without Consent” (2004). In the book, the authors report their investigations of the images of women: in various wars and armed conflicts, in many countries, from different aspects and roles that women play as aggressive female warriors or as patient wives passively waiting for their husbands.

Women had to simultaneously take on multiple roles and responsibilities during war, and yet the most frequently depicted image of women in war was that of defenseless victims. Women in the roles of soldiers’ lovers, relatives or mothers were usually described as passive subjects. However, the role of the passive victims of war had significant meaning in maintaining and supporting the fighting ethic of soldiers (Dombrowski 2004). The portrait of Vietnamese mothers was highly praised also for the purpose of boosting the ethic of soldiers in fighting to protect their hometown and their beloved ones including their mothers. Even at the present time of peace, the image of Mothers-of-Martyrs still holds its eminent value and serves as a new purpose to keep the nation’s history of resistance alive in a society where war remnants are slowly becoming less and less visible. These mothers now are the living moral examples of patriotism and unconditional sacrifice for the nation. The images of lonesome mothers who lost their sons during war still arouse sympathy and pity in everyone. The media frequently covers the updated news and pictures of these mothers as the victims of war who had to suffer a tremendous loss. This is still a very powerful and convincing image to remind the present generation about the sacrificial spirit of the former generation in their struggle for peace.

The image of women as mothers

What is notable, in several research studies conducted on women and war, is how the women’s role as mothers was affected by the wars. However, in most of the research it was found that the reproductive function of women was used to meet wartime policies of increasing the population (Roseman 2004) or supporting their desire to become mothers (Turner 1998). No research was found indicating that women sacrificed their role as mothers by allowing their children to engage in life-threatening warfare, when there was an extremely high risk of losing them as was the case with the Heroic Vietnamese Mothers.

During the First World War in France, motherhood was endorsed by the government in different forms such as discouraging abortion or by separating those women who were obtaining an abortion from those who were ready to give birth in maternity hospitals. This implied that women who bore children were of higher moral character (Roseman 2004). As Roseman found in her research, married mothers had to learn to take care of themselves and be independent in their daily life even during their pregnancy and giving birth. Thus, the concept of ‘home’ as-well-as that of ‘private space’ extended to include the maternity hospital. The first place where a newborn baby was taken care of before the war broke out, traditionally the private home, had now shifted to the maternity hospitals.

Pham Bich Hang’s (2002) research on women within the region of Northern Vietnam, during the war against America, featured the mothers-in-law as trying to prevent their daughters-in-law from leaving their homes so that their sons would not have to worry about their wives’ fidelity and could concentrate on fighting. The wives of these young soldiers were very aware of being faithful to their husbands, however, they also chose to go out and join social activities in order to focus on other things rather than fill their minds with worry and waiting.

Turner (1998) also mentioned in her book women’s desire to become mothers of volunteer youths. These women returned from the Truong Son mountain range already past the age of marriage, suffering from bad health, and faded beauty and youth after several years of living in severe hardship and chronic shortage. They returned from the battle only to find out that many of them were not able to start a family. Some of them wanted a baby so badly that they chose to have babies out of wedlock despite severe social criticism. Several of them dared not have babies for fear of bearing deformed babies as a consequence of their health conditions and agent-orange contamination.

Still no research has been conducted focusing on the sacrifices, emotions and experiences of women during and after the wars, especially those of the Mothers-of-Martyrs. For the women who chose to send their children to the front this sacrifice encompassed not only the pain of losing their own children, they were also sacrificing their motherhood and their innate mother’s desire to protect their children.

The image of women as war heroines

Women were not only passive war victims, they were also the agents of war in their own right. They were the ones who willingly joined the army and in some cases even changed their situation so that they could reach a more desirable social status or find a new direction for their life.

Mary Ann Tétreault (1991) noticed that women were not usually described as victims in Vietnamese literary and scholarly works. In contrast they were portrayed as mothers, heroines, and supporters of the revolution whose contributions were vital to its success. Most of the recent writings regarding Vietnamese Heroic Mothers aimed to stress their manners which was quite vivid in how they patiently waited for their husbands and children, how they displayed their reactions when they heard news of a loved one’s death, and in the manner in which they encouraged the fighting spirit of their loved ones. In the book entitled “Under the Shadow of the Same Flag” (Chung một bóng cờ”, 1993), Vietnamese Heroic Mothers are characterized as having “volunteered to contribute their talents, intellect, and wonderful courage to their Country”, “set shining examples for the next generation”, and becoming “seemingly paradoxical albeit real icons that reflect the combination of heroic traits and the warm-hearted nature of Vietnamese women” (Trần Bạch Đằng 1993).

The idealized images of Vietnamese women are those of mothers who brought up soldiers for the battle-field, and who rebuild the post-war society when peace was re-established (Turner 1998). Mothers-of-Martyrs hence became the models of morality which represented all Vietnamese mothers during wartime who could take care of their families while fighting as civilian soldiers (Turner 1998). Mothers-of-Martyrs are also called the heritage of the people’s tradition (Southern Women Museum 2011). This image of an ideal woman has actually long existed in Vietnamese tradition as reflected in the old proverb: “When the enemy comes even women must fight.” This tradition can be found in the long history of resistance against foreign invaders and is illuminated by the legacy of courageous female generals including The Two Trung Sisters (Hai Bà Trưng), Bà Triệu, Bùi Thị Xuân , etc.

Turner (1998) emphasizes that Vietnam is a special case study for researchers who study women and war. Vietnamese culture values femininity, and women’s traditional positions and roles in the domestic sphere. The duties expected of women were to be at home and care for their husbands and children. Yet as war broke out in their homeland the Vietnamese women left their domestic zones and their traditional duties for the heavy productive work to replace the men who left for battle; they even abandoned their traditionally-defined feminine manners to carry rifles, dig roads and repair the bridges or join the guerrilla troops.

Numerous research projects have also explored the motives why women decided to join the military. The research determined that women are not simply passive victims of wars, they also actively took advantage of the wartime situation to change their own life. During the First World War in Europe, women joined the labor force or the civilian self-defense troops as a way to express patriotism. In that way they gained higher positions in society and stepped out of their expected duties as housewives. These women joined a variety of activities in the hope of gaining a larger share in the socioeconomic landscape. As a consequence, they received more education, were allowed to join productive activities and some of them even attempted to integrate into the political system (Dombrowski 2004).

Dombrowski (2004) noted that in former colonized countries like Vietnam, rising against the imperial powers contributed to a change in gender relations in society. Specifically, the modes of fighting employed by Vietnamese during the wars were mainly indirect approaches to the enemy, (for example, guerrilla fighting) which opened many avenues for women to take part. Work such as transporting weapons, repairing roads and bridges was dominated by women during the wars. As such, women obtained broader roles in society.

In China a small number of women participated in the revolution as an escape from the tradition of arranged marriages in the villages or from the burden of pleasing their husband’s family (Young 2004). It was their understanding that the concept of “revolution” simply had very down-to-earth meanings such as not being exploited or tortured by the family, being rid of poverty and hunger, escaping from arranged marriages and from working as unpaid laborers for their family, or (for the more educated ones) fighting for social equity and national integrity. This revolution gave these women a chance to be free of their dependent, obedient traits.

Turner’s research (1998) on former female volunteer youths in the North of Vietnam revealed that the spirit of patriotism was the major motive behind their voluntarily leaving for the front. Other reasons that lured these youths from Hanoi to Trường Sơn Trail were to follow the call, to feel the romance of leaving their parents’ home, or for other practical reasons. However, most of them believed that they had no alternative choice except to fight for their country. Participating in the revolution opened a myriad of opportunities for self-improvement to them. Many of them learned how to read and write in the jungles. Many returned home with greater confidence and a higher education, especially since numerous women were liberated from the bamboo fences of their villages and were able to make their way to higher positions in society (Turner 1998).

The revolutionary roles of women in the two resistance wars, against France and America, were positively described in several Vietnam studies. Millions of women participated in the two wars. The victory of the August Revolution was also viewed as freedom from slavery for women and following the revolution they became the owners of their own country, which enabled them to take part in duties both in the rear and at the front. They proved themselves to be equally as talented as men. Consequently, Honorable-Military-Hero medals were awarded to many women, such as Ms. Nguyễn Thị Chiên, Ms. Hồ Thị Bi, and Ms. Lê Thị Tạo (Electronic Information Board of Hau Giang province). The women’s campaign in the Southern region during the war against America was simultaneously a women’s revolution, during which time the Vietnamese women were honored with the title “excellent in the nation’s work, talented in housework” (Trần Bạch Đằng 1993). Viet Minh gave women the opportunity to participate in political meetings, voice their opinions and allowed them to play critical roles in the revolution. Women shared their efforts and labors in the heaviest work including transporting weapons and food to the far-flung front. They were jailed, tortured or even murdered while carrying out their mission just as their male counterparts were. Revolutionary forces set up the liberalizing and educational programs for women that produced female warriors. Some of them had glorious careers like Ms. Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai (Turner 1998).

In the rear in Northern Vietnam, women were educated and trained for various skills and were proud of their participation in the social labor force in place of men, according to research conducted by Phạm Bích Hằng (2002). Many of the women left their domestic zones and fully joined social activities while some were prevented from doing so by their mothers-in-law who wanted to prevent their sons’ wives from being exposed to broader social interactions. Several women told the researcher that they went out and joined society because they wanted to feel respected. At home they were treated severely by their mothers-in-law who wanted to assure the fidelity of their daughters-in-law during the absence of their sons and to secure their daughters-in-law’s devotion to housework.

In another research study by Katayama Sumiko (2005), it was revealed that the People’s Newspaper, one operated by the Communist party, promulgated the image of actively working women during the period from 1966 to 1970. This newspaper portrayed the important contributions made by the women in several social productive realms, especially in agriculture. The campaign “Three Responsibilities” (Ba đảm đang”) that was often attacked by international feminists as a new form of exploitation against women, was highly praised by the People’s Newspaper as a remarkable collective effort of the Northern Vietnamese women.

However, the existing research projects have not paid much attention to the fighting movements of Southern Vietnamese women, and there are almost no accounts regarding Vietnamese Heroic Mothers. Why did they agree to let the husbands and children join the war? Many of them were also fighting during the war and lost their loved ones in the war. What did they expect of themselves after such tremendous personal sacrifice? How did their roles in family, community and society change during the years of war and the post-war time as well? What were the direct impacts the war had on their quotidian life, their roles in family, in community and in their gender relations?

When peace was re-established

Questions were asked in numerous studies regarding the real possibility of women being liberated as a consequence of the wars (for example, Young 2004, Turner 1998, Dombrowski 2004, Lê Thị Quý 1996). Dombrowski (2004) argued that in many regions in the world women were not fairly rewarded for their contributions and that they held on to “betrayed hopes”. Their labor and efforts during wars were lost in history and the country for which they made huge sacrifices are still continuously ruled by men. Young (2004) wondered about the fate of the girls who ran away from their villages to join the revolution and the Long March in China. Young asked whether they were still liberated from their homes after the revolution. Lê Thị Quý (1993) noted the occurring phenomenon of “invisible violence” which confronted women when they returned from the battlefield in Vietnam. After the war, the tradition of “respecting the males and despising the women” (“trọng nam khinh nữ”) rose again. Numerous women wanted to start a family of their own and once they could, they were successful in creating one after many painstaking efforts. In family life, they became obedient and submissive to their husbands again in order to keep harmony in the family that had taken too much suffering to create.

In Vietnam, numerous women were mothers of invalids or martyrs, and they also participated in the fighting. Many of their names are still widely known following the war and are frequently mentioned in the media. For example, Mother Nguyễn Thị Thứ in Quãng Nam, the mother of 9 sons, 1 son-in-law and 1 grandson, all of whom are martyrs; Mother Nguyễn Thị Rành in Củ Chi who is also a designated Military Hero; The Military-Hero mother, Nguyễn Thị Điểm, who actively participated in secret attacks in Saigon; Mother Nguyễn Thị Thập, former president of the Women’s Union, lost her son who was educated overseas in the Trường Sơn trail; and Mother Bùi Thị Mè, a former Vice-Minister at the Ministry of Health Service – Invalids and Society, and a mother of 3 martyrs. (according to the Vietnam Women’s Union).

In fact, however, many women who sacrificed much for the war still remain obscure and have received no recognition or compensation from the government. According to Turner (1998), the war against America in Vietnam was different from the conflicts occurring in other countries because it was a people’s war. The war penetrated each village, each urban corner, and it touched each family and each individual’s life. It was a war with blurred, not clear-cut lines between the rear and the front. Therefore, all the efforts, hardships and contributions to the war were deemed as a collective endeavor by all the people. Hence, numerous young women living on the Ho Chi Minh trail, in deep jungles, or fighting with myriads of military troops were unknown and not recognized for their sacrifice.

Only a few individuals have been singled out for their contributions and their reputations are widely known to the public. It is because their feats were representative in certain geographical locations. For example, Ms. Ngô Thị Tuyến was famous for protecting Hàm Rồng Bridge in Thanh Hóa and General Nguyễn Thị Định was the representative for Southern Vietnam's battlefield. In addition, their sacrifices inspired and encouraged their fellow men and women to participate in the revolution (Turner 1998). Despite recent attempts made by the government, including awarding the honorable title “Vietnamese Heroic Mother” and providing former youth volunteers with small monthly stipends, there is obviously still much to be done to compensate these women both materially and psychologically.

Turner (1998) expressed her concern about the extremely high cost that so many people had to pay for the war, the heavy debt that those living owe the dead, and how history should be recorded so as to keep the memory of the past and the meaning of these sacrifices at its right level of value. Mothers-of-Martyrs are probably those women who receive more sympathy from society for their huge personal sacrifice. Many of them do not have any close relatives left to take care of them in their old age and have no offspring to worship them when they pass away (which is extremely important in Vietnamese culture). Many former female-youth-volunteers returned home and faced the strong possibility of not getting married due to their bad health situation, their beauty having faded, or their being unable to give birth or worried about the risk of having deformed babies. Many of them had to adopt children, or had children out of wedlock. These former volunteer youths have yet to be appropriately acknowledged by the State. Most of the former female-volunteer youths who were interviewed by Karen Turner for her book “Even the Women Must Fight” (1998) were living in poverty. Yet, in spite of their own plight, they were more concerned about other former comrades. They felt pity for those who lost their lives during the war, even felt guilty for being alive, and they were especially worried about friends who were living alone without husbands or children.

The stories of Vietnamese women who lived during the wars, either in the rear or in the front, have yet to be studied properly. The number of studies on this topic has been approached mainly from historical angles to record their heroic sacrifices or fighting experiences and their memories of the past. The present life experiences of these women have not yet been studied well. Notably, most of the research has been conducted mainly in the North. The South with its own characteristics in politics and social conditions deserves more attention in its own right. 

The Vietnamese-Heroic-Mothers are especially remarkable subjects for more thorough research because many of them are very old and in bad health, and many have passed away. This fact certainly will pose a great deal of difficulty for the researchers. Their life stories should be told and recorded before this generation entirely disappears. The stories behind their honorable title should be heard so that we can have a deeper understanding about the women and mothers who lived during the wars. How are their lives now? What hardship did they have to suffer during the war? What were their expectations when they left their husbands and children for the wars? Did they join the revolution on their own and what did they do? What are their thoughts and emotions for their dead loved ones? What do they wish for their lives now? These are some of the minor aspects that this study aimed to illuminate.

Research methodology

From May to August 2011, in-depth interviews were conducted with 16 women, including 13 Mothers-of-Martyrs who were designated Vietnamese Heroic Mothers, and two women who had joined the revolution yet were not designated the title, and one woman with children contaminated by dioxin.

These individuals were selected from a list of 191 Vietnamese Heroic Mothers of 2010 who are receiving an allowance from the Bureau of Labor, Invalids and Society. These Mothers had children and husbands who died during the three periods of war: the war against France, America, and the conflict at the Southwestern border. The rural locale of Củ Chi with a tradition of fighting and being famous for having a large number of living Vietnamese Heroic Mothers has not been studied. The interview results presented in this paper are based mainly on discussions with the Mothers–of- Martyrs, and did not focus on the women who took part in the revolution or on the female agent-orange victims  

Results

The result of the interviews with Heroic Vietnamese Mothers

Age range

The birth-years of the mothers ranged from 1914 to 1939; most of them were born before 1925. That meant, as others in their cohort, they and their families lived through two major wars and most of their lifetime was during war. Now many are older than 80 or 90, in conditions of fragile health, who many times have been ill and have difficulty walking.

Their hometowns and areas where they followed the revolutionary activities

Most of the women interviewed were from the Mekong River Delta Provinces such as Long An, Tiền Giang, Đồng Tháp, or HCMC’s outskirt areas like Củ Chi, Bình Chánh, or Bình Dương. One woman was from Quảng Nam in the central region who moved to Sài Gòn for her activities after her identity was uncovered in Bình Định Province.

Most of the women were from farming families in rural areas. A few of them grew up in small-time trading families in the countryside or in small towns. Growing up in poor families in rural areas during the years of 1930-1940, most of them had not attended school and were illiterate; they informed us that they now can read newspapers and books thanks to the time they served in the revolution [1]. The rural areas they were living in were called the “free zones” or the “resistant wars zones” (meaning places controlled by the Viet Minh) during the resistance against France, or the “liberalized” zone during the war against America. The areas completely under the Viet Minh’s control, and hence relatively safe, were called the base during the war against France. Outside the bases were the “free” zones inhabited by people doing business with each other using “Viet Minh money and everyone supported the Viet Minh. People from the free zones usually commuted to and between their zones, the French zones or the government-controlled zones. They had identity cards and used Indochina money when they entered the government zones. The free zones were very often bombed and sometimes raided by the French soldiers or mercenaries who arrested or shot men and raped women. Until the dawn of the French colonial time, Vietnam succeeded in expanding the free zones and there were virtually undocumented agreements on the existence of borders between the free zones and government zones. The government set up the military posts yet the business and trading activities of people, mainly that of women, had no interference.

After the Genèva Accords in 1954, the South of Vietnam belonged to Saigon’s government and the resistant war zones no longer existed. During the 1960s, under the leadership of the National Liberation Front, the resistant bases were built again and since then the liberated zones have expanded. There were also the so-called “sticky rice and bean” zones (xôi đậu) in which people lived and joined the revolution [2]. They and areas where the “temporarily-lost” zones (meaning the government-controlled zones so designated by the Viet Minh) and the liberated zones overlapped were controlled by the Saigon government during the day and by the revolutionary troops at night,

Being born and growing up in resistant war zones, and to families with revolutionary traditions, it seemed natural that these women would also join the resistant movements and most participated


[1]  According to the narratives of Mrs. Hồ Thị Há, Mrs. Nguyễn thị Út, Mrs. Hồ thị Đợi

[2]  Mrs. Trần Thị Bé’s narrative:  “I did not actually leave for the revolution but I lived in the ‘bean sticky rice’ zone, the place where the population was a mix of us and the enemy.”

 

in both wars. These women told us that they joined the mass movement of the people in their neighborhood to join the revolution.

They were active mainly in their own hometowns which were either in the countryside or in the provinces. Some of them worked in the outskirts of Sài Gòn (e.g. Bình Chánh, Củ Chi) or in the inner districts of the city (e.g. Tân Bình). Many times during their activities they had to move to Sài Gòn or to the government zones because their identities as resistance fighters were discovered.

Their memoirs of what they remembered most and in the greatest detail

The women’s narratives were possibly affected by prompting from the interviewers. Interviews were usually begun by making inquiries about their health and their present life. Then the questions asked were about their participating in past activities and their lives during that time, and finally the circumstances under which their loved ones died. This order was followed to avoid encroaching on their sad memories so abruptly early in the conversation and to let the women recall memories of other parts of their life-long stories. Regardless of the narrative flow, there were things in their lives that these women obviously remembered in greater detail. It included: their participation in resistant activities, the diverse activities they were responsible for, anecdotes about their cleverness, their sharp judgment when confronting the enemy, detailed stories of their being arrested and imprisoned, being tortured, and their revolutionary courage while in such situations; and details about the time and circumstances of the death of their husbands and children and other relatives in the family.

The women’s responsibilities while carrying out resistance

The fighting tradition of the heroines

First of all, the significant role was seen of a family’s fighting tradition that resulted in their decision to join the resistant activities. Mrs. Lương from Củ Chi was from a family of 10 siblings; among them were three older brothers – the youngest brother died during the resistance against France. Mrs. Tiềm from Tân Nhựt (Bình Chánh) had 10 siblings who joined the resistance against France. From Gò Công, Mrs. Há’s father and aunt died in the resistance and Mrs Chồn lost her father and husband in the resistance.

Their motives for joining the revolution were sometimes rather simple. They followed the mass of youths and women to join, and felt resentful at seeing French soldiers killing so many Vietnamese that they wanted to fight against the French [1].

Their activities during the resistance

·         Working as liaisons and suppliers: Liaising was usually a job for women during both wars. The job consisted of transferring documents, letters, guiding the cadres from one point to another and transporting rice, food, medicine, and materials to the revolutionary zones. In performing their jobs, they had to face severe risks and danger when passing through several enemy checkpoints. They also had to be very clever, sharp-minded and flexible in order to deal with the enemy and be able to make exact judgments of the situation. 

Mrs. Lê Thị Lượng narrated one of her experiences as follows: “Once when I was delivering a letter I stopped on the way for a rest at an acquaintance’s house. My acquaintance asked the children to prepare a meal. The two sisters in the family complained that there was no rice left and went out to buy rice. I know they actually went out to report on me. I knew that they were aware of my job because my acquaintance’s son was in the government army, so I left their house immediately. I got a ride out of the village to the house of another acquaintance that also had joined the revolution. Then I changed to different clothes and a torn hat and went into hiding.”

The liaisons even had to pretend to be mad to escape the enemy [2]. They were all aware of the danger and the importance of their work and tried to find every possible way to avoid being arrested. Even when they were arrested and cruelly tortured, they did not reveal any information in order to protect their comrades.

·         Sheltering the cadres and weapons: During the resistance against France, Mrs. Loan sheltered the resistance fighters in her secret cellar in the Bảy Hiền T-intersection (HCMC). Mrs. Tiềm in District 6 (HCMC) hid soldiers in her cellar during the war against America.  In the people’s war, several households in the cities and in the rural areas sheltered cadres in their cellars.

·         Involved in political fighting, encouraging people to support the revolutionary force, destroy strategic hamlets, “diminishing the cruelty and killing the evilness”:  In the revolutionary zones women took part in political fighting which involved demanding that their husbands and children be released from the government army, demanding compensation for people who were killed and destroying strategic hamlets[3].

·         Directly involved in the battle: This was the case of Mrs. Huỳnh Thị Phước in the Trung Lập Thượng commune in  Củ Chi town. During the America war she was assigned the duty of defending a bridge in Củ Chi and was given her own gun. She started a movement to recycle the weapons and organized an attack to take over the bridge. She was extremely proud during those days as she was the only woman in the commune who owned a gun [4].  

·         Not only being a part of the revolution, they had to economically support the family, raise the children, and take care of the in-laws.

In contrast to their male counterparts who could depart entirely from the family when they joined the resistance, women had to do their jobs in the resistant movement while taking care of their household affairs which included working in the rice fields, or working as small-time traders, caring for their children and feeding their family. Only a few young women who participated in the Volunteer Youth Corps could actually leave their families behind.

Despite this, women made up a widespread network of supporters of the revolution in the people’s war. They were ordinary people who secretly joined the revolutionary force without the enemy being able to trace them.

The women interviewed were involved in all agricultural activities and livestock-breeding. Some of them were small-time traders selling vegetables, sweets, potatoes, etc. They all had numerous children and had to care for them while participating in the revolution which posed a great burden on them. Even when their children were sick, they had to ask for help from others when leaving for their jobs. Due to their activities, they had to frequently move to new places and bring their children. Daughters had to help their moms in earning a living. Their lives were faced with chronic shortage, danger, bombings and shootings [5].

·         Memory of their activist life:

Recalling the period when they engaged in revolutionary activities, all of them remarked about that time in their life as “very hard but happy”. What were they happy about?

They were happy about:

            -    Joining other people in destroying strategic hamlets

            -   Being able to socialize with people in their work

They also felt happy in realizing that they were capable of multitasking and feeling that they were helpful in the resistance; in other words, taking part in the movement that contributed toward enhancing their self-confidence, fulfilling their social needs, giving them the opportunity to be connected with a wider community beyond their own home, and building their social status in the community.

However, one should not forget that wars are always cruel. Therefore, along with their joy of fighting with comrades there was always fear and terror. Mrs. Ngô thị Tám gave the following narration: “Remembering about the war is similar to having a terrifying nightmare. There was the time when several aircraft were patrolling over our heads and soldiers attacking our homes breaking everything. I ran into the house and they stopped me. It was so terrifying, though I was very daring then…”

Some women remember wartime as a period of extreme hardship, however, not feeling so at the time. Some women shared their thoughts as to how it was much harder for women to join the military than for men. Women had to work for the revolution and take care of their family plus earn a living at the same time. The menstrual cycle was very problematic making it difficult to perform their work, or especially so when they were imprisoned. Mrs. Huỳnh Thị Phước said “When men went to war they were able to bring along one extra pair of trousers, however, the  women could not. Daily sanitation and dealing with their menstrual cycles, those were very difficult

Being arrested, imprisoned and tortured

Several of the women interviewed were arrested, imprisoned and tortured during both wars. Some were arrested a multiple of times and some were in jail for a long time. Mrs. Nguyễn Thị Đợi was relocated to several prisons: from the Chief Police Station to Hàng Keo, Chí Hòa and Phú Lợi prison. Mrs. Tám Thanh was imprisoned in the ‘tiger’s-cage’ in the Côn Đảo prison. The women remembered in great detail the circumstances under which they were arrested, usually by being pinpointed or arrested in massive attacks. They still clearly remember the brutal torture that varied from beatings to using electric shock, and other kinds of special torture applied only to women. These forms of torture left permanent marks on their bodies and damaged their health.

From a human rights perspective, these forms of torture were agregious human rights violations. It should be noted that during the same time in the North, captured American pilots were treated decently and provided with more food than the portions of food given to the prison cadres, and they were not at all beaten or tortured.

The circumstances of their husband’s and children’s death

The time when their husbands and children lost their lives reached across the years from the beginning of the French resistance to the East South border conflict, which was more or less for 30 years. Some women lost their husbands during the French resistance and then most of them lost their children during the war against America. In addition to the closest relatives, they also lost other relatives in their families such as daughters-and-sons-in-law, siblings, and husband’s siblings.

Some of them became widows at a very young age [6]; for example, Mrs. Đoi’s husband died on the battlefield when she was only 23 years old and expecting their first child. Mrs. Luong lost her husband and her two children within one month toward the end of 1970. Within only two years, 1969 and 1970, Mrs.Ut lost four family members; this unbearable loss pushed her into a state of mental illness for a period of time. The women interviewed tended to provide very specific details about the death of their loved ones, falling mostly into three categories:

-          Being killed while fighting in the front by being shot down, hit by bomb, injured and not getting timely medical aid, or shot by American planes flying by.

-          Being arrested by the enemy and then tortured and beaten to death [7].

-          Not only sons, on the contrary also daughters died during the wars. Mrs. Phuoc had two  daughters who sacrificed their lives for the revolution when they were still at a very young age. Some women were insulted even after their death. Mrs. Phuoc told the story about her daughter’s death in Thanh An, Biên Hòa: “There were eight people at the time, one soldier walked in the front with my daughter behind him. Seven people died and only one survived. The soldiers saw my daughter, the only girl, and took off her clothes and showed her naked body to the public, and then dumped her into an American army military cellar.” After the liberation, Mrs. Phuoc asked some soldiers to help find her daughter’s remains, however, they could not find her.

Living with the past

Even at the present, they cannot cease missing their dead husbands and children after 30 years of separation. Their emotional lives varied greatly one to the other. Some have no surviving children or husband; they have to live with adopted children, grandchildren or they live alone. The lucky ones are able to live with their living children and husband; family life is warmer for these women. For those mothers whose children are dead and whose bodies could not be found or they could not bury their children’s bodies properly, they suffer from permanent, unmitigating, unbelievable pain [8]. When interviewed, they could not stop their tears while speaking of their dead husbands and children.

 “Now, whenever I recall my children, my heart breaks. I cannot stop feeling so; I feel the most pity when I am sick… Being a woman is very painful. When my children were taken from me, I missed them so much that I could not eat or sleep. When they died, my heart was so broken, especially because I am still alive to grieve. Poverty and hard work only cause a burden to my body; I can rest to feel fine again although the burden on my mind is too difficult to remove.” (Mrs. Sơn Thị Ký)

“It is really so sad when meeting my friends, my comrades and seeing them with their offspring while I don’t have any!” (Mrs. Nguyễn thị Định).

Despite their grief they all accepted the situation, for it was a fact of war, “I see many people like me whose children are also dead. This is what we can do for our Country. Fighting the enemy and protecting the nation requires such sacrifices, we try to sooth ourselves, we cannot be sad forever.” (Mrs. Đỗ thị Chồn).

They all knew that going to battle was life-threatening, yet why did they allow their children to leave without trying to stop them? Their responses were:

-          All the youths in their locale left for the revolution.

-          They were also resistance fighters, so they let their children join the revolution to avoid the risk of being captured by the enemy if they stayed at home.

-          They were worried that their children would be forced to enlist in the government’s army if they stayed at home.

 Mrs. Nguyễn thị Út said, “I was afraid that the father would serve on this side, while the son served the side of the enemy.”  And Mrs. Nguyễn thị Đợi said“I also missed my husband and children a great deal, however, in our country there were people whose three children died and they were left to live alone. They sacrificed for the right cause; if I allowed my son to stay at home, the enemy may have beaten him, or he may have been captured and tortured, then he may have reported on my secret female comrades”.

The Southwest border conflict in 1978 was notably different from the two previous wars. During this period of time, peace was established and the border conflict was seen as an exception. One interviewed mother asked that her only son be exempted from military duty in Cambodia, however, her request was rejected. Then her son died leaving the mother living in Saigon. Despite the different circumstances of their living, they all shared their determination not to regret or blame anyone for the death of their loved ones; they all thought that everyone had to suffer losses and sacrifices in war. On the other hand, they felt in debt to their dead husbands and children because they are still living and receiving an allowance from the government for being Vietnamese Heroic Mothers. They feel that they are enjoying their husbands’ and children’s “blood and bone money”.  Mrs.Tiềm received her allowance from the government and other organizations and saves a small amount each month. When she had a chance to go to Hanoi, she gave 2 million dong to each member of her husband’s family explaining to them that “This is the blood and bone money from him and the kids.” Mrs. Nguyễn Thị Quánh receives an allowance of 2 million dong monthly. She said: “I am very frustrated now for receiving my son’s salary and using his money. I feel that I am eating my son’s bones and blood when receiving this money.

Advantages and disadvantages for women that  participated in the fighting

Advantages:

·         The advantages in their fighting activities stemmed from the traditional role of Vietnamese women in small-time trading. Traditionally, women are in charge of trading, not men. For example, in their quotidian life, they are the ones who frequent the markets and buy food and other commodities for their family. They also sell their family’s agricultural produce, and become involved in small-time trading in the cities and rural regional markets. Since the market broadened during the French-colonial era, women have been the moving traders who mobilized across wide areas. This economic role that women played and the familiar scene of female small-time traders walking around became an advantage for the women fighters in their roles as liaisons and suppliers for the revolutionary force.

People spoke to the women, who admitted that they had a much greater advantage as liaisons than men. Mobilizing in public was very difficult for men during wartime because the enemy always paid attention to their movements, thinking that men were potential enemies or subjects to be enlisted into the government’s army. Women only needed to be tactful, clever and calm to get through the enemy’s controlling fence as legal, ordinary small-time traders. “There were certain jobs that men could not do, such as connecting, liaising, or sneaking from one place to another. Women were different, and could easily wander around, and mix with people especially in the ‘sticky rice and bean’ zones” (Mrs. Trần Thị Bé).

·         Female gatherings and other tactics characteristic of women were used to stop the enemy such as screaming and crying, lying on the streets and crying, and quarrelling. Certainly, these tactics did not work all the time. “The captors forced all the people to gather outside and stand under the sun for questioning. They said whoever would tell them who Mrs.Út Phước is would be released. At that time I was inside and organized a group of people who pretended to be angry asking for the mothers to be released so they could go home and breast-feed their crying babies. Finally the captors had to release the women and regretfully spoke among themselves: “we have rounded up all the fish, though we still had to let them escape.”  (Mrs.Huỳnh thị Phước).

Rape – a specific danger that women had to confront 

In addition to the common dangers confronted by both men and women such as illness, injuries, being killed, being arrested, tortured and imprisoned, women and young girls living during the war were most afraid of being raped by the enemy. This was a relevant risk in both wars against France and America. Mrs. Nguyễn Thị Quánh, 95 years old, had three sons killed in battle, she still sent her 18-year-old daughter to the resistance movement. She explained that “at that time in the resistant zones, French forces were deployed. They raped girls and women; the same thing happened during the American war; they came to my home country, raped women and burned down our houses. Girls were so afraid that they fled from their homes. When the situation became quiet again they returned to collect rice and food for our soldiers.”

Mrs. Nguyễn Thị Loan narrated that “During the America war, Củ Chi was bombed severely and dreadfully. Some houses were set on fire twice; it was such a time of hardship. Whenever they attacked our village, the girls and young men all ran and went into hiding in secret cellars and only little children and old women were left at home; if they caught girls, they would rape them. Bombs were dropped so intensely that sometimes the cellars were hit; remembering that time is so very dreadful.”

Their testimonies once again confirmed the fact that these things persisted during all the wars starting from ancient times. Raping was used as a weapon of war [9] by the foreign forces in the two wars in Vietnam. In the memory of generations of people who had to live through both wars, the massive rapes by foreign armies during their attacks on the villages were painful and scary facts, especially to women.

Therefore, Resolution 1820 passed by the UN Security Council was plausible progress in the civilization of mankind. This resolution defined rape as a form of war weapon. (Thanh Gương 2008)

The Mothers’ thoughts and aspirations for the present 

After the war, a few of the women who had left their hometown to join the battle and were still young when the war ended were able to continue as officials in their locales, especially at the Ward level. The highest rank they managed to attain was Communist Ward Secretary. Most of them returned to become ordinary citizens again and they were old, hence their lives were full of difficulties, loneliness and separation both emotionally and spiritually.

Due to their contributions, several of the Mothers-of-Martyrs were provided housing by the government even before they were conferred the title of Vietnamese Heroic Mother. Their government-sponsored houses were usually small and old yet they assured them a stable environment. Currently, their monthly allowance ranges from 2.000.000 to 2.500.000 VND with an extra sum ranging from 500.000 to 1.000.000 VND donated by certain enterprises. Those with a higher allowance or pension may find this amount sufficient for their life. However, most of the Mothers-of-Martyrs need to be financially supported by their offspring or relatives. The expense for medication and treatment is a considerable portion of their income. Some use public health insurance while some do not because they are tired of waiting in line and skeptical of the effectiveness of the medication delivered under the insurance scheme.

Almost all mothers that were interviewed said that their wish is for good health and peace for their family. They also expressed an emotional need for having visitors with whom they can chat. Representatives from organizations or local authorities pay them a visit from time-to-time, usually during national holidays or the lunar New Year. However, those visits are formal and organizational in nature rather than for building friendly and long-term relationships. As a result, their emotional needs are far from being met.  

They felt happy that the wars were over and peace was re-established. Mrs. Lại Thị Khuỳnh’s thought represents the aspirations of these women: “Now, I have no other hope than having a peaceful life and that my family is sustaining a good living, the country is peaceful, and our offspring are fulfilling their filial duty and doing good deeds.” They also hope not to be faced with any kind of bedridden illness that made them entirely reliant on their relatives. After so many years of fighting and experiencing pain and loss, their wishes in old-age are very humble and they ask for almost nothing for themselves. Those who are still in good health only wished for a chance to travel across the country to Hanoi to visit Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. Mrs. Đỗ Thị Chồn said: “The youth nowadays cannot understand how hard it was to join the fighting of the previous generations. Even if we tell them, they will never understand.” Some of the women who were not granted a title of honor complained about the negligence of the leaders of the local authority who do not understand the plight they had to go through. Their contribution was therefore not recognized and no support has been granted to them.

Discussion and Conclusions

Discussion

The Vietnamese Mothers-of-Martyrs number only a few million women who stood by their male comrades during two wars for our nation’s independence. Even though only a very small sample of these mothers was contacted, a great deal was learned about their participation in the wars and especially about their irreplaceable loss of loved ones. Our argument is that Vietnam’s orthodox contemporary history needs to properly and appropriately record the roles and activities that women participated in during the wars. By writing about women, the history of what happened to them will be told by more varied voices which will put greater emphasis on the important facts about the cruelty of wars such as rape, remnants of agent-orange, women’s severe pain, and their contributions during the wars. The history of women is an inseparable part of the people’s history not a separate history of the women’s movement.

Most of the Mothers-of-Martyrs joined both wars with all their intellect, bravery and perseverance. They fought and yet fulfilled their duties as the women in their families by nurturing the children and earning a living to support their families. Men went to war with courage, leaving all concerns about the family and children to their wives and they focused on their military work knowing that their wives in the rear would take care of everything. With all their work and responsibilities, they are indeed heroines many times over. The Heroic Vietnamese Mothers had to bear the additional pain of losing their husbands and children. There were mothers who lived their entire youth in solitude, and now continue to be alone in their old age. The title Vietnamese Heroic Mothers that has been granted to more than 44,000 Mothers-of-Martyrs across the country is only of symbolic value. It does not represent a larger group of mothers who also lost their husbands or their only child during the war. Our perception is that all of these women should be part of the heroic mothers of Vietnam.

Their own husbands and children were killed and they themselves were tortured by the enemy with bad effects on their health to this day. However, in all the interviews with these mothers, not one of them had any notions of hatred or resentment toward the former enemy who caused the death of their loved ones. They are now very happy that peace is in their home country and do not want to discuss that time of pain again. Following the interviews it was quite obvious that these women feel it was their responsibility as a citizen to fight when the country was invaded by foreign powers. They asked, when were the enemies swept out of our territory, which also meant that the enemies lost, and then for what purpose are we keeping our hatred for them? These women have chosen to follow the way of thinking that says “do not continue to beat the ones who fell off the horse”. 

War and gender equity: Some progress and what is left to be improved

Most of these mothers were born to poor farming families and received no education. Without participating in the revolution, their lives would have remained in poverty in the remote countryside. They would not have had a sense of contribution to a broader society, or have broader social networks beyond their village, less chance to be equal to men, and no opportunities for  learning how to read to open their mind and further their intellect. Their testimonies indicate that participating in the resistance afforded them a better social position even though they did not go to school and own any property. They became more self-confident and learned skills such as persuasion and speaking to the public. After the war, some of them continued to serve at official institutions at a low level, nevertheless their social status was affirmed.

However, these cases are in the minority. The majority of the heroic mothers returned to the life of poor women who had to worry about family income and live with persistent pain and loneliness. Their heroic past did not give them a more influential voice in their family and community. Some of them returned to the position lower than their husbands’; they had to be obedient to their bossy husbands who were also once resistance fighters. “His temper is very bad and he always prevents me from doing things. For example the other day the Association of Heroic Mothers sent me an invitation to a meeting. He did not give me the invitation, forbid me from attending and forced me to stay at home. He yells as a boss, he has all the power to make decisions and does not let me participate in meetings. I have to be home to do housework.” (a mother’s testimony)

Mrs. Ngô Thị Tám related that “During the war, the issue of male dominance was not visible, though now it has risen again. During that time the focus was only on us and the enemy, that narrow line between life and death. Now during peace-time this kind of mindset is very difficult to overcome. During the war either we or the enemy would lose and be destroyed. However, now the enemy, in our mindset, cannot die and hence gender equity is extremely difficult to tackle.

As such, participating in the war and the mindset of gender equity do not go in hand, especially for men.

Some women spoke about discrimination against them by their male comrades. Mrs. Ngô Thị Tám stated that “Men manifest a very strong feudal mindset. Many women joining the revolution had higher positions and as a consequence the men felt that their pride was hurt. They complained about our performance by saying “You are the leaders yet you do not have any education, you cannot speak eloquently and you make us feel sleepy.

The gender inequality notions that these women raised is still a very contemporary issue that is facing Vietnam’s society today especially in politics and positions of leadership.

As mentioned above, most of the mothers are now very old and weak. They live in solitude and expect that visitors might come to see and talk to them. The Heroic Mothers of Vietnam still have an emotional need, therefore, action must be taken by the Gender and Society Research Center.

Conclusions

The Gender and Society Research Center, in collaboration with the Kim Anh Club of Hoa Sen University, is cognizant of the urgent need to stay in contact with these mothers. Regular visits will be organized in an effort to satisfy the emotional needs of these lonely mothers. They need emotional caring more than financial support or official visits. We believe that there are a myriad of ways to show our gratitude and compensate for the loss suffered by these women. One very important way is to fulfill their emotional needs.

 

                                                                        TPHCM, September 2011 

References

Southern Women’s Museum (2009). Vietnamese Heroic Mothers in Ho Chi Minh City. Accessed  on 25/9/2011 at:http://baotangphunu.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=106&Itemid=21

Electronic Information Gate of Hau Giang province. Vietnamese women in the revolutionary movement. Accessed 20/9/2011 at:http://www.haugiang.gov.vn/Portal/DATA/sites/10/chuyende/phunu/phan2/phunuvietnamtrongphongtraodautranhcachmang.html

Information-gate for contests and awards. A law granting the government’s honourable title of “Vietnamese Heroic Mother”.  Accessed on 25/9/2011 at: http://www.giaithuong.vn/giaithuong/tieng-viet/khenthuong-giaithuong/bai-viet/tintuc-sukien/van-ban-thi-dua-khen-thuong/luat-phap-lenh/phap-lenh-quy-dinh-danh-hieu-vinh-du-nha-nuoc-viet-nam-anh-hung.html.

Dombrowski, Nicole Ann. (2004). Soldiers, Saints, or Sacrificial Lambs? Women’s Relationship to Combat and the Fortification of the Home Front. In Nicole Ann Dombrowski (Ed.) The Twentieth Century in Women and War in the Twentieth Century: Enlisted with or without Consent. New York: Routledge.

Vietnam Women’s Union. (2011). Golden board of Vietnamese Heroic Mothers. Accessed on 25/9/2011 at:http://www.phunu.hochiminhcity.gov.vn/web/tintuc/default.aspx?cat_id=521&news_id=285

Katayama, Sumiko. (2005). Vietnamese women’s portraits during the war against America: Analysis of the typical women’s portraits on Nhan Dan Newspaper from 1966 to 1970. Social Sciences Magazine No. 7 (83), pp.72-77.

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[1]  Narratives of Mrs. Huỳnh thị Phước

[2]  According to the narrative of Mrs. Phan thị Tiềm.

[3]  According to the narrative of Mrs. Nguyễn Thị Định: In Trà Vinh, she joined other people to destroy strategic hamlets. Hundreds of people participated in this kind of work and the atmosphere was always very bustling. 

[4]  According to the narrative by Mrs. Huỳnh thị Phước.

[5]  According to the narrative by Mrs. Nguyễn thị Út, her children did not experience childhood at all. She and her second-oldest daughter had to earn money to feed her husband, her bunch of kids and the resistance fighters. Her 7th-oldest daughter had to do all the household chores and babysit the younger siblings.

[6] Mrs. Đợi’s husband died in 1948 when she was only 23 years old. She was pregnant of their first child. This son died in the war in 1967.

[7] Mrs. Lê thị Lượng’s husband was caughted when his secret cellar was discovered. He was beaten and mobilized to several jails, finally was moved to Phú Quốc island and died there

[8]  For example, Mrs Đợi has husband and children all dead and cannot find their bodies.

[9] Thanh Gương:  “History has shown us that whenever a war broke out, women were put under two heavy burdens. First, they were the victims of war (being murdered, suffering from loss and mourning…) just as men. And at the same time, women were the “sexual prey” of any men from both sides, the enemy side and their side, or even of men who were also victims of war… Some women even had to exclaim that “being a woman in war is even more dangerous than being a soldier of the rival side.” (Rape is a war weapon, in Diễn Đàn bản điện tử - 2008)