Bitcoin Couple Faces Death Penalty for Trying to Build Home in International Waters
Nadia Thepdet and Chad Elwartowski wanted a slice of libertarian heaven off the coast of Thailand—but the country says their dream is actually a very serious crime.
Nadia Thepdet takes beautiful photos of the ocean. One recent picture on her Instagram shows the sun setting over the waves. In another, she stands on a boat off Thailand’s coast, holding a golden coin with bitcoin logo.
But Thepdet’s love of bitcoin and the sea could cost her her life.
She and her boyfriend Chad Elwartowski are cryptocurrency evangelists who tried to live out the libertarian idea of seasteading. The concept, beloved by tech types like Peter Thiel, proposes a set of floating islands in international waters. The idea is to escape countries and laws.
Now the law is coming for Thepdet and Elwartowski. The couple moved into the first off-shore house by seasteading company Ocean Builders earlier this year. Their new home was located atop an oil rig-like structure 12 miles off the Thai coast, technically in international waters—but Thailand says they weren’t far enough from the coast. Thai authorities accuse the couple of breaching a law prohibiting acts that endangers Thai sovereignty, according to the Bangkok Post.
Breaking the law is punishable by death, or life in prison. Now Thepdet and Elwartowski say they’re on the run.
“This is ridiculous,” Elwartowski wrote in a Monday Facebook post. “We lived on a floating house boat for a few weeks and now Thailand wants us killed.”
At its heart, seasteading is like living on a glorified houseboat. The idea has a strong fan base among a certain fringe of libertarians and anarcho-capitalists who believe in establishing a new society with little to no government.
One of seasteading’s earliest and most notorious failures was “Operation Atlantis,” a 1968 effort to build libertarian civilization aboard a boat in international waters. The plan sank with the boat, which caught fire while leaving New York and went belly-up in a hurricane near the Bahamas. (The plan’s founder later tried to build paradise on an offshore oil rig that was also swept away in a hurricane.)
More modern visions of seasteading have imagined entire cities built across boats or oil rigs. Ocean Builders, which is run by early bitcoin adopters, says it wants to build the first seasteading homes. If all goes according to plan, those houses might become the beginning of a city at sea.
Some of seasteading’s biggest backers come from the cryptocurrency community, where Thepdet was a minor celebrity, posting as “Bitcoin Girl Thailand.” The pair claimed to have generated their wealth from the untraceable digital currency, which is a favorite of libertarians.
In a Facebook post last year, Thepdet envisioned luxury homes floating on the ocean. The reality was less glamorous.
In February, Ocean Builders announced it had constructed “the world’s first seastead in international waters 12 nautical miles out from Phuket, Thailand.” Thepdet and Elwartowski’s new home was very basic: a short, round room atop stilts.
It was also very illegal, Thailand authorities allege. “If it is left untouched, it will hinder ship navigation since the route is used for the transport of oil to Phuket,” a government source told the Bangkok Post. The government reportedly alleges the structure was in Thai maritime waters.
One seasteader said the couple’s plan to live 12 nautical miles off the coast came with legal setbacks.
“12nm [nautical miles] is not ‘the high seas,’” Patri Friedman, founder of the Seasteading Institute, wrote on Facebook. “It is the Contiguous Zone, where a state has many rights, several of which seem likely to pertain here. Do not listen to anyone who tells you that the high seas starts at 12nm; it means they haven’t even spent 5 minutes reading Wikipedia.”
“Even the actual ‘high seas’ (roughly 200+ nm from land) are not a magical realm of freedom where you can just plant a flag and be an independent polity,” he continued on Facebook.
With Thai authorities searching for them, the couple is now denying allegations that they tried to undermine Thai sovereignty.
“Nadia and I did not design, construct or pay to have the seastead constructed,” Elwartowski wrote on Facebook. “We promoted it and lived on it. We helped out by giving the builder updates and we participated in the launch. We did not decide where to put the seastead. We are enthusiastic supporters of the project who were lucky enough to be the first ones to stay on it.”
The couple were back on the mainland when they started reading news reports about Thai officials raiding the seastead, they told Motherboard.
In a follow-up Facebook post, Elwartowski said he and Thepdet were safe, and that they were trying to find a way out of the country. Elwartowski is a U.S. citizen, but Thepdet is Thai and might try to apply for asylum in the U.S., he said.
“Hunting us down to our death is just plain stupid and highlights exactly the reason someone would be willing to go out in middle of the ocean to get away from governments,” he said.