| A photographer dresses a Chinese woman in traditional Japanese clothes in a Beijing park. (Reuters)
Beijing, April 15 (Reuters): About 2,000 retired servicemen from across China staged sit-down protests in Beijing this week to demand pension increases in a public display of dissent that has alarmed the leadership, a military source and witnesses said.
The back-to-back demonstrations from Monday to Wednesday were the biggest by veterans in China since the 1949 revolution and unsettling for the Communist Party which has relied on the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to maintain its five-decade-old monopoly on power.
The protests came on the heels of violent anti-Japanese demonstrations in Beijing and southern China over the weekend against a revised school textbook that China says glosses over wartime atrocities.
Wearing their old uniforms, more than 1,500 retired PLA officers from about 20 provinces staged a peaceful sit-down protest outside the Beijing office of the general political department on Monday and Tuesday, the military source and the witnesses said.
'The government was caught unprepared ... It is worried veterans will continue to link up and bring chaos to society,' the military source said today.
Police and local officials dispersed the protest 36 hours later by forcibly putting the petitioners on rented buses or trains and sending them back to their hometowns, said the military source and the witnesses who all requested anonymity.
On Wednesday, more than 400 retired rank-and-file soldiers from nine provinces staged a brief protest on the doorsteps of the general political department, a branch of the PLA which oversees personnel, propaganda dissemination, song and dance troupes and athletes.
Police were prepared this time and shunted the group to an indoor sports stadium in Fengtai in suburban Beijing before being sent home. Analysts said the protests were only the tip of the iceberg.
Millions of low-ranking PLA officers and rank-and-file soldiers who were given jobs at state-owned enterprises after retirement feel their pay and new status fail to live up to their contributions to the country. Many have lost their jobs because most state firms are losing money.
Authorities were investigating who organised the protests by the veterans.
Freedom of assembly and association is enshrined in China's constitution, but the authorities are obsessed with stability and regularly crack down on organised dissent.
The demonstrations were all the more unnerving for Beijing which sees the PLA as a tool to hold on to power and sent troops backed by tanks to crush student-led demonstrations for democracy centred on Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 4, 1989.
The first group of protesters were among an estimated 300,000 officers who retired, voluntarily or otherwise, between 1990 and 1999 and received pensions of up to 60,000 yuan ($7,200), the military source said.