At the reception, attendees sampled a buffet of American offerings and Burmese delicacies. Then, Moe Chan, executive director of the Committee for International Movement of Burma Point - whose strength comes from the 10,000-member Burmese community living in Woodside, Sunnyside, Elmhurst, and East Elmhurst - briefed participants on the political and social conditions in Burma, both in an historical and present-day context.
He also outlined steps the American and international public could take to alleviate the harsh conditions the Burmese are living under today and the prospects for future democratization.
Two documentaries on Burma visually dramatized the severe realities in that country. Produced by the National League for Democracy (NLD), the "Saffron Revolution: Fight for Democracy by the People Under the Brutal Crackdown of the Regime" portrayed the monk-led Saffron Revolution peaceful demonstrations for food and democracy.
In August and September of 2007, sudden rises in government-controlled fuel and commodity prices, triggered demonstrations throughout the poverty-stricken country of Burma. In a plea for their survival, and with a severe humanitarian crisis looming, thousands of peaceful protestors took to the streets in Rangoon, Pakokku, and other cities.
The world watched aghast as soldiers responded with a heavy, and sometimes lethal, hand against them. Troops stormed monasteries, beat and humiliated monks, and killed some 200 people and hauled over 2,000 off to detention facilities. The film showed riot police, government militiamen, and soldiers firing into the demonstrators, bodies being hauled off, and blood staining the concrete.
The next film, "Freedom from Fear," which was narrated by a Buddhist monk, documents the same sanguinary period but with more of a religious-philosophical approach. In the end, one is left with the impression that things might just work out better in the future.
Next, two nationally known Burmese figures were teleconferenced in to the event. Toc Lwin, an ex-political prisoner and former bodyguard of democratic leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, offered his personal experiences of the regime's strong-arm tactics and his life behind bars for seven years before his release two years ago.
Htun Myat Oo, co-founder of the National League for Democracy, briefed attendees about the present status of the Burmese democracy movement and what message he thought Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would give to the world if she could speak freely.
One important goal of the Burma Point fundraiser was to help the growing number of political prisoners and their families in Burma. There is an estimated 2,100 human rights activists and politicians who were arrested and sentenced to prison terms of between 50 and 100 years. In recent weeks, about 270 activists - including monks, student leaders and NLD members - were jailed for joining in peaceful calls for democracy.
The iron-fisted military regime of Gen Than Shwe not only barred much of the international humanitarian aid to the victims of Cyclone Nargis in May, but also jailed Burmese citizens who aided the relief effort without official government approval. Nargis, which killed more than 100,000, has left about 2.4 million people homeless and still in need of basic necessities like food, clothing, medicines, and permanent shelter.
Chan explained, "Just last week, nine National League for Democracy members were arrested for holding a banner asking for freedom for our incarcerated leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi," said Chan. "Political prisoners are mistreated by the government and their families are discriminated against as well. Often they are unable to find decent work because they are related to a political prisoner."
The Burma Point Information Specialist May Lynn, who is from Elmhurst, further described the harsh jail conditions.
"The government doesn't even provide prisoners with food and water, medical attention, anything at all," he said. "Inmates have to look after each other. Monthly, the family must pay the prison warden to feed their relative or maybe all they'll get is a little rice. Any medication, even aspirin, must be provided from outside. And since detainees are heads of the household and nobody is providing for the family, our help is badly needed."
The second goal of the fundraiser was to continue the constant awareness of the Burmese freedom movement in the U.S. and elsewhere.
"The plight of my people has been going on for more than forty years," Lynn explained, "and nothing much changed in all that time."
Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962. The current junta came to power in 1988 after crushing a nationwide pro-democracy uprising. In 1990, in a free election, democratic candidate Aung San Suu Kyi's party won a landslide victory, but the junta never allowed her to take office. Instead, the 63-year-old Nobel Peace laureate has been under house arrest in Yangon for most of the past 19 years.
On the political/diplomatic front, Burma Point is pushing for a U.N. resolution against the continued seating of the Burmese delegates on the basis that do not represent the will of the people. However, this session it was not voted on due to a technicality.
"China and Russia always defeat resolutions at the Security Council level," explained Lynn. "So the U.S. and the international community must put more pressure on those two countries."
Lynn stressed that Burmese domestic political unity was still an evasive goal. Looking forward to the national elections scheduled for 2010, he said, "The opposition parties are not united - some say they will participate, others won't. There must be a common, democratic political front and hopefully elections held under U.N. or similar group supervision."
Headquartered in Win Shwe Hall on 73rd Street in Woodside, Burma Point is also taking on a social mission.
"Many Burmese refuges - both legal and illegal - are settling in the United States and we are trying to educate and integrate them into the community," explained Chan. "We are offering them basic English language instruction and computer training skills to help newcomers find a better job here.
"We want them connected to the heart of the Burmese-American community while remaining aware of conditions back in Burma," he continued. "We want to bring people together socially and politically as a community."
At program's end, Diana Heller, who donated her loft as venue for the cause, made some generally shared points.
"It’s very important people understand what's going on in Burma," she said. "Knowledge is paramount."
Burma Point can be reached via theirwebsite.