Navy preparing to seize seastead

Navy preparing to seize seastead

A navy team approaches the floating home formerly occupied by Chad Elwartowski and Supranee Thepdet off Phuket on Saturday. (Royal Thai Navy photo)
A navy team approaches the floating home formerly occupied by Chad Elwartowski and Supranee Thepdet off Phuket on Saturday. (Royal Thai Navy photo)

The Royal Thai Navy is preparing to seize the seastead of a fugitive American bitcoin trader and his Thai girlfriend in the Andaman Sea, saying maritime law is clearly on its side.

A navy task force was sent out on Saturday to tow the structure to shore where it would be handed over to Phuket police to be kept as an exhibit for legal action against its former occupants, the navy said in an official statement.

However, as of Saturday afternoon it was still studying how to move the structure without destroying it, Reuters reported.

Chad Elwartowski, 46, an American bitcoin investor, and Thai national Supranee Thepdet, who goes by the English name Nadia Summergirl, were found to have been living in the structure built 14 nautical miles (26km) off the coast of Phuket.

They are libertarians who want to seek a place to live and set up a community in international waters free of any nation's laws

While the seastead lies beyond 12 nautical miles and is thus not in Thai territorial waters, it is in the country’s contiguous zone, which is considered part of the broader exclusive economic zone (EEZ). (continued below)

Source: “Law of the Sea: A Policy Primer”, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University

The navy is acting based on Article 56, which outlines the jurisdiction of a coastal state over its EEZ under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Vice Adm Sitthiporn Maskasem, chief of the 3rd Naval area Command, told the Bangkok Post on Saturday.

The UNCLOS grants a state jurisdiction with regard to the establishment and use of structures.

Thailand also issued an announcement on its EEZ in 1981 with similar provisions, he said.

Earlier on Friday, the navy posted on Facebook that there was evidence the structure had been built on land belonging to Phuket Premier Boatyard Co Ltd in tambon Mai Khao of Talang district, on the resort island. It was then moved to the sea southeast of Koh Racha Yai.

The navy filed charges on Monday against Mr Elwartowski of committing an act that puts part of the country under the sovereignty of a foreign state under Section 119 of the Criminal Code. The offence is punishable by life in prison or execution, which has given rise to a torrent of sensational headlines worldwide. 

As well, the navy asked the Phuket immigration office and the Foreign Ministry to revoke Mr Elwartowski’s visa and blacklist him. The provincial marine office has also warned fishing boats against approaching the structure as it has become evidence.

The navy also said it did not send anyone to follow or threaten the couple, as they had claimed in some foreign media reports. The pair are now believed to be in hiding somewhere in Thailand and looking for a way to get out of the country.

The US Embassy in Bangkok told Reuters that Mr Elwartowski had engaged a lawyer and was being provided with appropriate assistance.

Ocean Builders, a team of entrepreneurs that develops seasteading structures, posted on its blog on Friday that Mr Elwartowski’s structure was outside Thai territorial waters and was never intended to intrude into Thai territorial waters. It gave the coordinates of the structure as 7.487162, 98.581792

“It has been the official stance of Ocean Builders to be apolitical and we have no intention of creating an ‘independent state’ nor a ‘micro nation’”. The same is true for Chad and Nadia who are just a loving couple of two seasteading pioneers who want to live free on the seas, thereby respecting applicable regulations of UNCLOS and the rights of Thailand within the contiguous zone. The two of them present neither a danger to Thai sovereignty nor the shipping routes.”

It also claimed the seastead is so small (six metres wide) and not located near any known shipping route so there is no need to destroy, sink or remove it. “Any respective activity would be illegal. We are reserving all of our property rights on the seastead insofar”.

It also threatened to bring the case to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea for further clarification. 

However, the founder of The Seasteading Institute says the legal issues surrounding the practice are complex and not well understood.

“12nm [nautical miles] is not ‘the high seas,’” Patri Friedman 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 five minutes reading Wikipedia.”

Mr Friedman is one of seasteading’s leading proponents and previously led an aborted effort to create a libertarian city in Honduras, The Daily Beast reported.

“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.

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