BANGKOK (The Nation/Asia News Network) - Police have identified 11 suspects in the alleged gang rape of a 14-year-old schoolgirl and are in the process of identifying more.
The victim, now 15, has said more than 40 men sexually violated her last year in a shocking case involving crimes that allegedly took place in the quiet village of Ban Koh Raed in Phang Nga's Takua Thung district.
"Local residents are ready to cooperate with police," Mr Yuttanakorn Juanjenkij, a governing official in Tambon Loryoong, said amid reports about local people being concerned regarding the negative publicity affecting their village.
Ban Koh Raed is home to about 180 people, with some residents expressing regret and scepticism about the claim that more than 40 men were involved in sexual assault, which would mean at least one-fifth of residents were party to child rape.
"Think about children who live in the village. They feel stress as such a claim means their fathers may be suspects," Mr Yuttanakorn said. "Local residents here are generally close. It is really hard for them to believe such a large-scale crime could have happened in their neighbourhood."
The family has reportedly faced harassment and threats from members of the local community.
The girl’s parents are rubber tappers who work at night, forcing them to leave her alone at the time when the attacks reportedly took place. The complaint states that the girl was first raped by an assailant at her home, then subsequently forced to go to huts in the area where she was drugged and gang raped by multiple perpetrators.
He added that people living elsewhere now viewed Ban Koh Raed negatively.
Mr Yuttanakorn said village residents would definitely cooperate with the investigation despite their misgivings about the scandal.
Mr Chanon Abdullah, who works for the Phuket branch of the Muslim for Peace Foundation, said the number of alleged rapists was based on the victim's testimony.
"She is now very fragile emotionally. She feels pain whenever she has to answer about what happened and recount her ordeal," Mr Chanon said.
He added that his foundation had assisted the victim and her family since June. The young victim kept quiet about the alleged months-long sexual attacks out of concerns for the safety of her family. She lives with her younger brother, mother and stepfather.
After her mother lodged a complaint with police against the first three suspects, officials from the Social Development and Human Security Ministry helped the family to relocate out of the village.
Mr Chanon said the girl had already been interviewed by a multi-disciplinary team.
Meanwhile, Mr Manit Pienthong, a senior official with the Phang Nga provincial government, accompanied by public prosecutors, justice officials and the chief of the Takua Thung district, has visited Ban Koh Raed to provide social counselling and facilitate the investigation.
Dr Hataichonnanee Booncharoen, director of Southern Institute of Child and Adolescent Mental Health, said officials had already conducted examinations of village residents' psychological conditions.
"Some have had minor symptoms such as stress, anxiety and insomnia," she said. "But others have had serious problems such as suicidal thoughts."
Mr Hataichonnanee said people with suicidal tendencies needed to receive urgent treatment.
A 57-year-old man who said he was among the eight new suspects named in the scandal declared his innocence. "I have never laid my hands on her," he said.
He added that the allegation had caused him to experience a massive amount of stress. "I feel really bad too, given that I always extended help to her family."
Police deputy spokesman Pol Colonel Krissana Pattanacharoen said police were in the process of seeking arrest warrants for additional suspects, after more had been identified.