A retired US defense contractor with wartime experience in Iraq and Afghanistan is on the run in Thailand with his bitcoin-savvy girlfriend, fearing Bangkok’s military government will arrest or even kill them for living on a floating platform off the country’s Phuket island.
“The [local press] reported that Nadia and I were being accused of breaking a Thai law that carries a life sentence or the death penalty,” Chad Elwartowski said in an exclusive interview with this correspondent conducted online on April 17.
“What is reported in the press in Thailand is usually what the military wants reported. Even though the allegations are far off base, we have to take seriously their intention to kill us.”
The Thai navy reportedly demolished their floating residential pod “without following any legal process,” Elwartowski said. “We have no reason to believe we would face any sort of fair trial.”
He denied violating Thai laws including its territorial rights in the Andaman Sea or “commercially extracting natural resources.” He also offered to donate the anchored platform – if it has not been destroyed – to a Thai university for marine engineering and biology students.
“In exchange they drop the charges,” he said in the email interview.
Alternatively, the couple hoped to enter the US Embassy in Bangkok for asylum where “we could be married and so she can leave with me to America.”
Elwartowski, 45, said he was a retired defense contractor born and raised in Tecumseh, Michigan.
Starting in February, the couple spent a total of 10 to 20 nights weathering occasional heavy rain and high waves during brief on-and-off visits to the floating platform. It was located “13 nautical miles from the closest exposed land, which put us outside of Thailand’s territorial waters.”
Living in an artificial residence in the ocean is known as “seasteading.” Hotels and other venues have built residential pods, sometimes underwater, within the territory of other nations. The American and Thai were reportedly the world’s first seasteaders in international waters.
They were in their Phuket island home several days ago when their legal situation deteriorated.
“Our contact warned us” that Thailand’s navy considered their platform’s location in the Andaman Sea was problematic and they would be arrested.
The Third Naval Area Command filed a police complaint on April 12 against Elwartowski and his Thai girlfriend, Supranee “Nadia Summergirl” Thepdet, under the Criminal Code’s Section 119, according to the Bangkok Post.
“The section concerns any acts that cause the country or parts of it to fall under the sovereignty of a foreign state or deterioration of the state’s independence. It is punishable by death or life imprisonment,” the Post reported on April 14.
“Chad’s visa has now been revoked. His actions have impacted the nation,” Phuket Immigration Chief Lieutenant Colonel Kathatorn Kumthien told The Phuket News on April 17. “His name has been added to the immigration blacklist, he is banned from staying in or re-entering Thailand. His right to stay in the kingdom of Thailand has ended,” Kathatorn said.
“We believe he is still in Phuket. I am searching for him to talk with him and to enforce to law.”
Asked about his whereabouts during the interview, Elwartowski replied: “We are trying to stay safe while our lawyer handles discussions with the Thai government.”
Elwartowski said he was previously a defense contractor in Iraq, Afghanistan, Germany and South Korea. His work included “simulations of military radio networks … flight simulators [and] working with the intelligence community.”
He was based at Camp Slayer in Iraq during 2005-2006 and twice in Afghanistan, 2011-2013 and 2017-2018, before retiring last year, he said. His Facebook posts indicated he was at the main US air force base at Bagram, Afghanistan and included a photo of him next to an artillery gun captioned with a joke about hunting Taliban forces.
“At Fort Bliss doing CRC preparing to go back to Afghanistan,” he wrote in a December 2016 post, referring to briefings at the Continental United States Replacement Center in Texas.
Elwartowski is reportedly a volunteer seasteader promoting – but not funding – Ocean Builders, which is a small company constructing, anchoring and offering to sell similar floating pods. After Thailand’s reaction, the small company postponed plans to sell “barebones” residential pods on April 15 at prices starting at US$150,000.
Fancier $200,000 modules would have included “a nice kitchen, water, solar electric, etc,” the company said on its website. “We are also not restricted by national firearm laws so we can protect our seastead to the fullest extent possible from all would-be thieves,” it said.
Toilets empty into the “same place as whale and dolphin poop goes,” but garbage is to be bagged and dropped ashore.
“We understand that many people cannot buy a seastead and move their whole lives to Thailand immediately,” the company said, indicating they planned to locate future pods in the area. They suggested Elwartowski and his girlfriend could help new purchasers “with property management.”
“Chad and Nadia are safe for now but understand that Thailand is currently being run by a military dictator. There will be no trial if they are caught. They [Thailand] already demonstrated that by being judge, jury and executioner of the historic very first seastead,” Ocean Builders’ April 15 statement said.
“Seasteading needs to happen now as tyranny creeps ever more deeply into our governments to the point that they are willing to hunt down a couple of residents residing in a floating house in middle of nowhere,” the statement said.
Supranee described herself on Facebook as a “bitcoin expert, trader, chef, seastead pioneer, nature conservation volunteer” from Bangkok.
Their modern, white, hexagonal pod was about 20 feet in diameter and could contain a bed, toilet, propane kitchen unit, fresh water converter, wifi reception, LED lighting and other conveniences, according to Elwartowski’s posts.
The roof served as an outdoor deck topped with solar panels, supported by a gasoline-powered generator.
A long, weighted cylinder served as an underwater anchor wide enough for a person to walk down several internal levels below the water’s surface.
Illustrations of sleeker models showed the pod’s circular wall punctuated with portholes and a door leading to a narrow, walkable deck orbiting the rim.
Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978.