Society

Ocean Micronations, The Libertarian Floating Utopia

The U.S.-based Seasteading Institute is pursuing the notion of "startup governments" and the opportunity for like-minded people to live in shared offshore communities. Could man-made island colonies be our future?

Vincent Callebaut's
Vincent Callebaut's
Julien Damon

In the early 16th century, humanist Thomas More envisioned Utopia as a fictional island whose organization principles could inspire the world. Now, at a time when all the world's natural islands have been discovered, some U.S. libertarians aspire to create new ones so they can better organize the world.

For the island of Utopia, More contemplated a system of perfect equality where private property was banned. On the islands dreamed by these U.S. entrepreneurs, who are keen on absolute liberalism and high tech, one principle rules: freedom for the shareholder citizens.

With the financial backing of billionaire Peter Thiel, who co-founded PayPal and was an early Facebook investor, the Seasteading Institute was created by former Google engineer Patri Friedman, who also happens to be the grandson of late economist Milton Friedman, a Nobel Prize laureate. Relying both on scientific progress and grey areas concerning the status of residents in international waters, Friedman and his institute are trying to install new artificial islands in the sea to test innovative forms of government.

On social networks and in the press, the project is invariably presented with amazing imagery â€" the sort that every architect knows how to produce â€" of beautiful skies and green archipelagos of residential platforms.

A team of designers and graphic designers, together with engineers, biologists, and legal and financial advisers, have thoughtfully modeled and calculated everything. In July, the institute announced that with $167 million in investments, it would be possible to accommodate 300 people on a reinforced concrete platform of 3,000 square meters by the year 2020.

This first module would later be joined by others, offering a whole range of services and equipments, from swimming pools, hotels and gardens to office buildings, heliports and docks. The different units would be assembled as an independent city, where developers say the rent shouldn't be higher than in New York or London. By 2050, the Institute hopes that tens of millions of inhabitants will live in these aquatic and idyllic metropolitan configurations.

But there's surely still a long way to go from the announcement to the project's realization, especially given that while a lot is being said about the subject, nothing concrete has been built yet.

Still, constructing these islands represents a lot more than just a technical feat. It's a true realization of the anarcho-capitalism ideal: cities, or micronations, freed from all taxation, democratic elections, law and visas, all competing with one another, resulting in the emergence of the most efficient models of government. The Seastanding Institute's project is based on one big idea: being able to choose your government the same way you choose your cellphone, paving the way for "startup governments."

Critics may laugh at the technological challenge, but this isn't even the most difficult part. Today’s giant ships and offshore installations prove that we can conquer the sea. And those who see it as just a slightly crazy fantasy for nutty millionaires are missing the point. Indeed, the creation of such islands, which at this point may or may not materialize, is not just about wanting to make money or to runaway from the world.

Their ambition lies in what the institute calls the "eight great moral imperatives," namely to feed the hungry, enrich the poor, cure the sick, live in balance with nature, power civilization sustainably, clean the atmosphere, restore the oceans and stop fighting. No less.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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