US Bitcoin trader faces death penalty after Thai navy seizes floating home of fugitive 'seasteaders'

‘I was free for a moment - probably the freest person in the world,’ said Chad Elwartowski before apparently fleeing dwelling 14 nautical miles off Phuket coast

Adam Forrest
Saturday 20 April 2019 17:40 BST
Floating home in the Andaman Sea
Floating home in the Andaman Sea (AP)

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Thailand’s navy has boarded and seized the floating home of a fugitive US bitcoin trader and his Thai girlfriend, both prominent members of the “seasteading” movement who possibly face the death sentence.

Thai authorities have revoked the visa of US citizen Chad Elwartowski and have charged him and his partner, Supranee Thepdet, with violating Thai sovereignty by raising a small cabin above the water, 14 nautical miles off the west-coast of Phuket.

Police said the two are believed to be in hiding in Thailand, having apparently fled their tiny sea home. Any violation of Thai sovereignty carries punishment of life in prison or death.

The Royal Thai Navy task force had planned to tow the dwelling back to shore for use as evidence on Saturday, but were still studying how to move the structure without destroying it, the navy said.

The cabin – which sits on top of a large, weighted pillar in the Andaman Sea – will be handed over to Phuket’s police to be kept as an exhibit for the legal action, the navy said in an official statement.

The floating home has been promoted as “the world’s first seastead” by the group Ocean Builders, part of a movement in tech and libertarian circles to build communities beyond the bounds of nations as a way to explore alternative societies.

“I was free for a moment. Probably the freest person in the world,” Mr Elwartowski posted on his Facebook on 13 April, before the Thai navy raided his cabin.

Mr Elwartowski, 46, and Ms Supranee, whose Facebook page describes her as a “Bitcoin expert, Trader, Chef, seastead Pioneer”, apparently left the offshore structure after a surveillance plane flew overhead the previous day.

In a video posted last month detailing how the cabin was raised, Mr Elwartowski said 20 more similar sea houses would be up for sale to form a community.

Thai naval officers approach sea dwelling on Saturday
Thai naval officers approach sea dwelling on Saturday (EPA)

He and Ocean Builders claimed it was in international waters beyond Thailand’s jurisdiction. Thai authorities say the structure is in its 200-mile exclusive economic zone and therefore a violation of its sovereignty.

The navy said they have evidence that the floating home was built in a private boatyard in Phuket and said the couple wanted to establish a “permanent settlement at sea beyond the sovereignty of nations by using a legal loophole”.

It said the action “reveals the intention of disobeying the laws of Thailand ... undermining Thailand's national security as well as economic and social interests of maritime nations.”

Ocean Builders has denied allegations that the couple were planning to set up an independent state or “micro nation”, according to its online statement. The group said that the pair, both active bitcoin investors, did not build, invest in or design the floating home themselves but were “volunteers excited about the prospect of living free”, documenting their lives as “pioneer seasteaders” off the coast of Phuket.

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The US Embassy in Bangkok said that Mr Elwartowski had engaged a lawyer and was being offered appropriate assistance.

According to Ocean Builders, the concept of “seasteading” has been discussed for years but the cabin Elwartowski and Supranee lived on was the first attempt at living in what it described as international waters.

Other groups, such as the Seasteading Institute, which was originally backed by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, have sought to build floating cities with the cooperation of host nations.

Additional reporting by Reuters

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