As part of a month long build up to International Women’s Day Celebrations on the 8th of March, the YCL will be publishing daily articles highlighting the exemplary role played by women in the international communist & working class movement.
Today we pay tribute to Nguyễn Thị Định, Communist, anti-colonial guerrilla and the first serving woman General of the People’s Army of Vietnam.
YCLers are encouraged to host, support and participate in celebrations locally to bring the message of International Women’s Day into Our workplaces, colleges and schools, and communities.
Nguyễn Thị Định (1920 – 1992) was born in Ben Tre Province, Mekong Delta, South Vietnam, an area with a strong tradition of anti-colonial struggle. Her peasant family were supporters of the Communist led movement against the French colonial rule. Định was introduced to the Communist and anti-colonialist movement by her family and her early experience shaped her outlook for the rest of her life.
At the tail-end of 1930, Định’s brother Chan was arrested by the local village authorities controlled by French colonialists. Định later recalled the scene in the prison:
“Many men were beaten until they passed out, blood trickling from their mouths, heads and feet, and dyeing the cement floor a greyish and purplish colour. I loved my brother and I hated the soldiers so intensely that I wanted to run out to hold them back and defend my brother, but I was too frightened and so I just stood there, frozen, and wept in anger…. And it was at that moment that a thought sprang into my innocent mind: “Why are good and capable men who are loved by the people and their families, like my brother Ba Chan, suddenly being beaten so savagely?”
This was when she became a revolutionary and dedicated herself to the anti-imperialist struggle.
A year onwards, the anti-colonial Viet Minh movement had rose to prominence. Định was recruited by the Viet Minh to organise women in the Chau Thanh district. She led the uprising which then took place in Ben Tre province and the people staged a takeover against the local French authority in the region in August 1945.
After the uprising was successful, Định was assigned to the province Women’s National Salvation Association and was elected to the executive committee of the province. She worked at the village and district levels to build up the women’s network, and at the end of 1945 she was elected to the executive committee of the Women’s Association.
In 1946, Định was selected by the Province Party Committee to go with other delegates to meet Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi to request weapons for the struggle in the south. Định along with two 50-year-old men and two youths managed to load the weapons onto a small boat and smuggle them past a French naval blockade.
Over the following decade, French repression intensified and many of Định’s comrades were killed in battle or tortured in detention camps. In 1954, the stunning victory of Vietnamese forces at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu ensured French defeat and forced negotiation on an independent future for Vietnam as well as Cambodia and Laos..
The Geneva Peace Conference agreed on a temporary partition of Vietnam along the 17th Parallel with joint national elections to follow allowing unification. The elections would never take place. With Ho Chi Minh and the revolutionary forces sure to win any vote, the US instead chose to impose a puppet dictatorship in the south led by Ngo Định Diem. The national liberation struggle took on a new dynamic. Diem began a bloody state campaign against Communists and Viet Minh activists. Despite this Nguyễn Thị Định chose to remain in the south after partition to resist the puppet regime.
In 1960, Định and her comrades in Ben Tre began an insurrection against the Diem regime. In one notable incident they managed to trick government forces into thinking they had real guns (they actually only had custom-made pellet guns) by making as many explosions as they could. At the same time, women initiated a campaign of face-to-face confrontation with the state military troops to urge them to desert and end the brutality.
Liberated North Vietnam began to directly support and bolster the guerrilla war in the south. The National Liberation Front (NLF) was founded shortly after. Định served as the representative for Ben Tre within the NLF. The NLF in the Ben Tre managed to organise mass battalions in the province which menaced US marines and conscripts of the puppet dictatorship alike. Armed units of women, known as the “long haired battalions” played a massive role in the war effort.
Định was elected to the central committee of the NLF in 1964 and served as deputy commander of the South Vietnam Liberation Forces. As a military tactician and commander she was highly praised by her comrades who served alongside her in the struggle.
In an effort to halt the Communist ‘domino effect’ the USA initiated a genocidal bombing campaign and later deployed hundred of thousands of troops. General Nguyễn Thị Định led the Peoples Liberation Armed Forces in the struggle to liberate the Mekong Delta. Women made up one-third to one-half of the PLAF volunteers fighters. Women specialised in commando operations, reconnaissance and nursing.
In 1975, the PLAF and North Vietnamese Army won the war, liberating South Vietnam. The conflict had cost two million Vietnamese dead with three hundred thousand children orphaned (many of them Amerasian). The mission to rebuild the country was massive.
After the war, Định served on the Central Committee of the Vietnamese Communist Party and became the first female major general of the Vietnam People’s Army. She served as Vice President of Vietnam from 1987 until death.
Định was also President of the Vietnamese Women’s Union which merged the women’s organisations of North & liberated South Vietnam. She used her great skill of organising to establish the union at village, district, province and national level. Today the Women’s Union continues to thrive with over 13 million and is an influential force advancing women’s liberation in Vietnam.
Nguyễn Thị Định died on August 26th 1992 in Ho Chi Minh City. She was posthumously awarded the honour of Hero of the People’s Armed Force for her heroism and her contribution to the national liberation struggle.
As Communists, we uphold the memory and inspiring legacy of revolutionaries such as Nguyễn Thị Định who struggle for the birth of a socialist world, regardless of their nation. Only under socialism can we guarantee equality, an end to oppression and genuine women’s liberation. Nguyễn Thị Định’s life and struggles mirror the great advances, hardships and gains of the Vietnamese people and revolution in their legendary anti-imperialist struggle.