Police across China rounded up or held thousands of retired army officers who had planned to converge on Beijing on Monday to complain about corruption and unpaid pensions, organizers of the mass petition attempt said.
Around 1,000 petitioners from around the country did succeed in arriving outside national army headquarters in Beijing on Monday, but were rapidly rounded up onto buses, participants said.
"We were all brought back [home]," a would-be petitioner and retired People's Liberation Army (PLA) officer surnamed Zhao said in an interview from his home.
He said the move had been coordinated among thousands of PLA veterans around the country who wished to petition the ruling Chinese Communist Party over their treatment in retirement.
"People came from all around the country," Zhao said. "This time I guess there must have been several thousand people, but most of them are being held under house arrest."
"The police heard that we were planning to travel to Beijing on Aug. 20, and arrive outside the Central Military Commission between 1:00 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. to demand an explanation," he said.
"There was already a huge number of police who had been waiting for us from early that morning outside the gates of the Commission and the Military Museum," Zhao said.
"A lot of [the petitioners] made it to Beijing," he added. "They say there were six buses, which I think took them to the Jiujingzhuang [unofficial detention center]."
Repeated calls to the mobile phones of veterans' representatives Yu Guobao and Liu Kezhi, who had managed to arrive in Beijing, went unanswered on Monday, with a message saying the phones were switched off.
The Hubei-based rights group Minsheng Guancha said in an e-mailed statement that a large number of people had been detained at the gates of the Commission on Monday.
Their complaint letter said that, far from being welcomed into local government jobs or quasi-government bodies on retirement from military service, they were ignored or snubbed by local officials.
Large numbers of PLA veterans say they are now suffering extreme economic hardship in spite of their service to the nation, giving rise to their slogan, "No money for the doctor, nowhere to turn for help," the group said.
"Since 2008, the government has stripped away the status of PLA veterans and former military cadres, which means we have not a penny in income," Zhao said.
"We are getting on [in age] a bit and we can't find jobs, so our existence is very hard," he said.
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 Communist Party, because of their proven loyalty to Party and country.
The sensitivity around military retirees suggests that many are afraid of politicizing their cause through contact with foreign media.
In February, disgruntled PLA veterans launched a nationwide campaign ahead of annual parliamentary meetings in Beijing, calling publicly for the military to intervene to fight graft, which they blame for their lack of pension income.
The retired army and navy officers, who have spent many years petitioning for better benefits and conditions in retirement, staged a protest outside the joint headquarters of the PLA in Beijing, carrying placards and shouting slogans, rights activists said.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.