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Everyone lived in fear: Malaya and the British way of counter-insurgency'

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Recent research on Palestine, Kenya, and Malaya has emphasised the coercive nature of ‘Britain’s dirty wars’. Abuses have been detailed and a selfcongratulatory Cold War-era account of British counter-insurgency – as ‘winning hearts and minds’ and using minimum force – subjected to intensifying attack. The result has been a swing from over sanitised narratives of the primacy of ‘winning hearts and minds’, towards revisionist accounts of relentless coercion, the narrowly coercive role of the army, and of widespread abuses. This article argues that, if Malaya is anything to go by, the essence of Cold War-era British counter-insurgency victories lay neither in ‘winning hearts and minds’ per se, nor in disaggregated and highly coercive tactics per se. Rather, it lay in population and spatial control in the which the interaction of both was embedded. In Malaya British tactics during the most critical campaign phases counterpoised punitive and reward aspects of counter-insurgency, in order to persuade people’s minds to cooperate, regardless of what hearts felt. This article thus makes the case for avoiding artificial contrasts between ‘winning hearts and minds’ and a ‘coercive’ approach, and instead for a new orthodoxy focusing on their roles within the organising framework at play during successful phases of counter-insurgency.

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