As It Happens

Why this couple could face the death penalty for living in a houseboat off Thailand

Chad Elwartowski and Nadia Supranee Thepdet were just "testing out" a new way of life, says Seasteading Institute chair Patri Friedman. Now they're in hiding, after the Thai government accused them of violating the country's sovereignty.

Couple in hiding, afraid of being arrested, says member of seasteading community

Nadia Supranee Thepdet and Chad Elwartowski are 'obviously very scared,' says Seasteading Institute chair Patri Friedman. (Chad Elwartowski/Facebook)

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In a recent YouTube video, Chad Elwartowski and Nadia Supranee Thepdet said that they wanted to "create history" by living on the open ocean as seasteaders. Now, they are in hiding. 

Elwartowski, an American bitcoin investor, and Thepdet, a Thai national, were living 20 kilometres off the coast of Thailand on a type of floating home.

It was considered a breakthrough in the seasteading community, which seeks to create permanent dwellings at sea outside of traditional government territory. 

But in April, the Thai government towed the home to shore and accused the couple of violating the country's sovereignty. The couple are currently in hiding, and Thailand's attorney-general is investigating. The couple could face the death penalty if found guilty. 

Patri Friedman knows the couple, and is the chairman of the Seasteading Institute in Oakland, Calif. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens Carol Off. 

Can you describe for us this floating home where this couple was living?

The home that Chad and Nadia were testing out is what's called a "spar platform" which means it consists of a tall concrete pillar, and then on top, a platform that has living space, kitchens, bathrooms etc.

Why did they want to live there?

Chad and Nadia are seasteaders, meaning they're people who believe that humanity needs to settle the oceans and someday create new countries out there. And they were testing out this new kind of structure for doing that.

The Thai government says, basically, that they regarded it as a hazard to shipping. And they regard it as a violation of the country's sovereignty. Don't they have a right to say that they don't want that structure there?

I absolutely think that the Thai government has a right to say they don't want the structure there, but they did a lot more than that. Without any warning they said that Chad and Nadia, just for having floated this new kind of structure offshore, were being charged with treason — a capital crime — and started hunting them down.

That's just nuts. 

This houseboat, this structure, that Chad Elwartowski was living in with his partner, they didn't design or pay for it. So who actually was in charge of this boat?

That's a mystery. So it was designed and built by a company called the Ocean Builders that wants to make a business of making these single family sea sets.

And Chad and Nadia were the first couple willing to try it out and live on it.

Whoever installed it where they did … do you know if they had any contact with the Thai government?

As I understood it, they did contact the Thai government and asked for permission. But a government is a big thing that has many different branches and I think that … they asked for permission and they received it, but not from the right part of the government.

Have you been in contact with them since they've gone into hiding?

A little bit.

They're obviously very scared about the situation and, you know, shocked that just trying out this new structure led to these treason charges and they're just ... scared of being apprehended at all given the reputation of Thai prisons.

I know you're a head of an institute that promotes this seasteading, this concept of creating ... sovereign nations on the water. So what does this case mean? Is this a setback for your movement?

Our approach for the last five years has been focused on working with countries through formal agreements.

And so this is a reminder to us of why we're doing things that way.

An artist's rendering of a seasteading community, from The Steasteading Institute. (The Seasteading Institute and Gabriel Scheare, Luke & Lourdes Crowley, and Patrick White)

What is it that you want to do differently by building these, I guess, independent nations on the water?

We think it's really important that people be able to try out new forms of government and new places. I mean it's not right that people who live in a country should have their form of government changed on top of them.

But at the same time it's also not right to have there be no places where we can try out new systems of laws.

Your grandfather [Milton Friedman] was very famous for his work on free markets and minimal intervention of government in his book Capitalism and Freedom. What do you think he would think of the seasteading movement?

When I talked to him it many years ago, he didn't like the idea that it was escaping. But I think as we've shifted to work with countries [and] create these experimental zones for new laws, I think he'd like that.

Do you think it is escaping?

I don't think so. I think that at the very beginning the idea was somewhat escapist, but as we've been working to bring it to reality we're really seeing ourselves as part of the international legal system. 

So it's really sad that Thailand saw this as an affront to them.

Written by Sarah Jackson. Produced by Morgan Passi. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.