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The first 'seasteaders' in rough waters after Thai navy swoops in

Thai naval officers and marine police inspect a ‘seastead’ in the Andaman Sea off the coast of Phuket island, southern Thailand. - Royal Thai Navy Handout/EPA via Postmedia
Thai naval officers and marine police inspect a ‘seastead’ in the Andaman Sea off the coast of Phuket island, southern Thailand. - Royal Thai Navy Handout/EPA via Postmedia

The couple, part of a movement aimed at creating communities in international waters, face the possibility of life in prison or death

Two people are in hiding after the Royal Thai Navy occupied a small structure off the coast of Thailand, in which the couple had been living as part of a movement called “seasteading” — the creation of autonomous homes in international waters.

As r eported in the Bangkok Post , the Royal Thai Navy filed a criminal complaint with police about the two occupants, American Chad Elwartowski and his Thai girlfriend Nadia Supranee Thepdet, under a section concerning threats to national soveignty. These offences carry sentences of life in prison or death. Thai authorities also say they have revoked Elwartowski’s visa.

“This is ridiculous. We lived on a floating house boat for a few weeks and now Thailand wants us killed,” Elwartowski said in the Facebook post, now hidden from the public. He said he and his girlfriend were safe, but hiding from police.

The two are the first seasteaders to put to sea as part of a group called Ocean Builders, an enterprise aimed at creating a community of floating homes, by developing and selling structures that can be self-sustaining in international waters. The couple’s home was constructed by sinking a long spar and placing an octagonal platform on top of it.

Following the incident Saturday, the Ocean Builders group posted a statement on their website saying that Elwartowski and Thepdet were not responsible for building the seastead, but were merely tenants. They said that though they initially feared the seastead had been immediately destroyed, there was some indication that it was still afloat.

Daniel A. Nagy, a personal friend of the couple who had visited them in Thailand before their seastead was launched, said in a Facebook message that “Basically, Chad and Nadia are blazing the trail, trying out how to seastead. A lot of people, including myself are following them closely to learn from their experience.” Nagy said he hadn’t heard anything from Chad or Nadia beyond what Ocean Builders had stated online.

On Thursday, Ocean Builders published another post showing data extracted from an on-board tracker emitting a signal that shows it to be 14 nautical miles from the nearest Thai island, meaning it is outside of Thailand’s territorial waters. However, it is within 24 nautical miles, meaning it is within the contiguous zone that allows states to exercise some control in order to prevent “infringement of its customs, fiscal, immigration or sanitary laws and regulations within its territory or territorial sea.”

Ocean Builders is just one group in the wider seasteader movement, of which the Seasteading Institute is the biggest player.

The Institute was founded by Patri Freidman, the grandson of the famous economist Milton Friedman, and funded in part by a $1.7 million donation from the Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel.

“Seasteaders envision a vibrant startup sector for governance, with many small groups testing out innovative ideas as they compete to better serve their residents’ needs,” the company’s website says.

The seasteading community is at its core a libertarian enterprise. They envision a world that maximizes freedom, where people are able to “vote with their homes,” simply sailing away from any community where government becomes too big or where they are unhappy.

Peter Thiel, one of the most high-profile tech-y libertarians in the world, spoke at a 2009 convention hosted by the Seasteading Institute in which he discussed why he thought seasteading was an important endeavour for humanity.

“The question of whether seasteading is desirable or possible is in my mind not even relevant — it is simply necessary,” Thiel said.

The idea of seasteading fits into the decentralized and competitive idea of governance that is part of the libertarian tradition. However, the difficult legal questions about where homes could be located, as the recent incident near Thailand shows, could be a major problem for the movement.

“Maybe there will be some reaction,” Thiel said in his 2009 address. “Maybe there will be an aircraft carrier coming toward the seastead. But if you have 10,000 seasteads, maybe it’ll be too late.”

In a 2017 interview with the New York Times, however, Thiel expressed some reservations about the technological and engineering feasibility of seasteads, noting they were “still very far in the future.”

Another setback for the seasteading movement was the end of a deal the Institute had made with French Polynesia, which appears to have disintegrated.

The idea of a microstate utopia is nothing new. The most famous example is the Principality of Sealand, which claims its status as a micronation and is entirely confined to an old anti-aircraft platform off the coast of the United Kingdom.

Even more relevant to the seasteaders vision, perhaps, is the Republic of Rose Island, a platform constructed by an Italian engineer in the Adriatic in 1967, which included everything from a restaurant to a bar and dance floor. Italian police eventually occupied the microstate and it was destroyed by the Italian navy, leading the founder to declare a government-in-exile.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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