Some 2,000 former People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers staged a sit-in outside government offices in the central Chinese province of Hubei on Monday, calling on the government to resume paying their retirement benefits.
Rows of veterans clad in the distinctive green and red uniform of the PLA staged the protest outside the gates of the Hubei provincial government, eyewitnesses said.
"There are two or three thousand people here, and we want an explanation," a veteran protester surnamed Zhang told RFA from the scene.
"There are probably around one or two thousand police and security guards."
"Not a single government official has spoken to us so far," Zhang said.
Most of the protesters are veterans of China's brief 1979 border war with Vietnam，while others had fought in both that conflict and the Korean War (1950-1953), the Hubei-based Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch website said on Monday.
An activist who joined the sit-in said a number of people had been detained briefly and then later released by police following "brief clashes," with police and security guards.
"They were released after 2 p.m. [local time]," she said.
But no official had come out to meet with the protesters, an eyewitness told RFA.
"They are calling on the government leaders for a response, but the leaders aren't coming out."
He added: "There are a lot of police, security guards and plainclothes police here, and they have surrounded these people."
Police had also told bystanders to move on, he said.
"They dare not try to move the old soldiers on, but they are grabbing people's cameras and they won't let anyone take photos."
Campaigners have previously told RFA that there are currently "thousands" of military petitioners across China whose promises of jobs and pensions after their demobilization from the PLA haven't been honored by the government.
Retired military personnel have been cited by officials and activists as a highly sensitive sector of the population, who might swing a tide of public opinion in their favor and against the ruling Chinese Communist Party because of their proven loyalty to their country.
Extreme economic hardship
Veterans have told RFA that many of them are now suffering extreme economic hardship in spite of their service to the nation, since the government stripped them of their official status in 2008.
"We are sitting here and making our demands, because a directive from the central government in 2004 said that veterans of both the [Vietnamese and Korean] conflicts shouldn't be allowed to dip below the poverty line," a veteran surnamed Chen told RFA from the scene.
"There are a lot of people here now," he said.
The World Bank defines poverty as an income of less than the equivalent of U.S. $1.25 a day.
The veterans are calling on the government to raise their retirement benefits, abolish the difference in payments between rural and urban areas, and address the issue of forced evictions in rural areas, the protester surnamed Zhang told RFA.
"We want provincial and municipal-level governments to give appropriate and special consideration to the veterans of the two wars," Zhang said.
"They should raise the income and improve their treatment of those who are in difficulty," he said.
Zhang said part of the problem is the huge disparity in wealth between coastal regions and China's vast western hinterland.
"In some county towns and suburbs and in rural areas, there is very little [provision for us], even none at all," he said.
He said many of those present are trying to get by on 300-400 yuan (U.S. $48-$64) a month.
"As for medical expenses, we can only claim back a few pennies now," Zhang said.
Repeated calls to the Hubei provincial government complaints office rang unanswered on Monday.
Standing up for their rights
A protester surnamed Wang said rural veterans are currently receiving 340 yuan (U.S. $55) a month, compared with 5,000 yuan (U.S. $805) a month in the provincial capital, Wuhan.
"So we have come to the provincial government today to stand up for our rights," Wang said.
"The clause [in government regulations] on the treatment of veterans states that they shouldn't be allowed to fall below the poverty line in their region," he said.
"We have to pay our medical expenses out of our own pocket, whether it's a serious illness or not," Wang said.
But the provincial government had sent out directives calling on officials from the protesters' hometowns to come and escort them home, he added.
He said protesters are now worried about the possibility of official retaliation after they get home.
China's petitioners, who often include forced evictees or farmers who have lost their land to development, as well as former public servants complaining of a lack of income, flood the government's "letters and visits" petitioning system with more than 20,000 new complaints a day, according to government figures from 2013.
In the process, they say they are repeatedly stonewalled, detained in "black jails," and beaten and harassed by authorities if they try to take complaints against local government actions to a higher level.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wei Ling and Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.